Broadway Review: GOOD NIGHT, OSCAR (Belasco)

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by Tony Frankel on April 24, 2023

in Theater-New York


“It’d be nice to please everyone but I thought it would be more interesting to have a point of view.” The incomparable Oscar Levant is the subject of the hit play which opened tonight at the Belasco Theatre. If you are not that familiar with Levant, don’t fret, by the end of the show, you will know him well.

Emily Bergl, Sean Hayes

Playing Levant is three-time Emmy Award winner Sean Hayes returning to Broadway. Best known as the wisecracking sidekick Jack McFarland on the long running NBC hit sitcom, Will & Grace, Hayes is nothing short of spectacular in the role. A previous Tony nominee for his stage work in Promises, Promises opposite Kristin Chenoweth, if the extraordinary Hayes doesn’t win Best Actor in a Play at this year’s Tonys, I’ll eat my piano.

Sean Hayes, Ben Rappaport

Distraught, frantic, frenzied, impetuous and panic-stricken, Hayes mines comedic gold playing this neurotic but lovable character. The play offers, in about 100 intermission-free minutes, a searing, funny, poignant portrait of Levant when the man’s life was spinning out of controlIt’s a strong piece of writing from Doug Wright elevated to the “must see” level by Hayes’s stunning physicality (watch his hands when opening a pack of cigarettes); vocals (a rural Pennsylvania meets urban sophisticate); and musicality (Hayes is a concert pianist) as the gifted and tortured Levant.

John Zdrojeski, Sean Hayes

Levant was an actor (An American in Paris) and a fantastic musician, a skilled and popular interpreter of George Gershwin’s music — he was the first to record Rhapsody in Blue after Gershwin, with whom he was a close friend. He was also a comedian, making him an in-demand regular on the talk show circuit. Best known for wicked double entendres, a self-deprecating one-liner, or forked-tongue quip (“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”), he also, very openly, shared stories of his own personal demons, prescription drug abuse, neuroses, a Demerol addiction after a heart attack, and a precarious tap-dance between mental hospital stays, professional engagements and rest with his family at home. This is the crux of Good Night, Oscar.

Peter Grosz, Alex Wyse, Ben Rappaport

Before Carson, Letterman, Leno, Kimmell and Fallon, Jack Paar hosted what was then the only late-night talk show on television. One of his favorite guests was character actor, pianist and wild card observer Levant. The night of one of his final appearances is the story staged here. At odds over this appearance are network executive Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz doing his best in a one-note role) and talk show host Jack Paar (spot-on lovable Ben Rappaport, who even sounds like Paar). Paar loves Levant’s unfiltered and inspired candor — “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath,” Levant joked on his show. Sarnoff, on the other hand, frantically worries that Levant’s appearance that could alienate viewers and offend delicate censors.

Emily Bergl, Ben Rappaport

Enter June Levant (a fabulously self-controlled Emily Bergl) who needs to speak with Paar alone. A wife at the end of her rope because of her turbulent marriage to a mad genius, June shares that she had to officially check her husband out of a mental hospital on a limited pass in order to allow him to appear on the show. Joining him on this fraudulent furlough is Alvin Finney (Marchánt Davis), a Black medical professional who — in helping Levant — puts his own career on the line, especially when NBC assistant and novice Max Weinbaum (eager-beaver Alex Wyse) is effortlessly manipulated by Levant’s whims. The final member of the cast, George Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), is a drug-induced, hallucinatory fantasy in the mind of Levant.

Marchánt Davis, Sean Hayes

Wright, also known as the book writer of War Paint, offers a play that is witty, wonderful and oh-so-much fun. Directed by Lisa Peterson, this show is a marvel at balancing the unpredictability of live TV with the tension caused by Levant’s surreal mind. Rachel Hauck’s set design of an NBC Studios sound stage and offices impresses. Emilio Sosa’s 1958-influenced costume design is simply sumptuous; notice the realistic fat-suit under Levant’s schlumpy street clothes. Ben Stanton and Carolina Ortiz Herrera’s lighting, particularly the blues during the “fantasy sequences” with Levant and Gershwin, astounds. The wig, hair and make-up designs of J. Jared Janas are particularly winning given the jowls on Mr. Hayes.

Alex Wyse, Sean Hayes

Hayes is absolutely astounding; his tour-de-force performance is all but guaranteed to amaze and thrill. Everyone involved here is firing on all cylinders, bringing life to Levant’s artistic brilliance and his very public personal demons, but the show seems an impossible feat without Hayes at the center of it. See it now.

photos by Joan Marcus

Good Night, Oscar
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St
ends on August 27, 2023
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge or Good Night, Oscar

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