Scott, Richard, and I saw *Good Night, Oscar* on Broadway on April 14, 2023.
It's a new play by Doug Wright about Oscar Levant. Wright won the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play *I Am My Own Wife.* That was genius. And he wrote the book for the musical *Grey Gardens,* which was also extraordinary.
You might not know who Oscar Levant is, but if you've seen *An American in Paris* or *The Band Wagon,* you've seen his work. He was the goofy sidekick in both of those movies. He was a gifted pianist and composer who got plenty of work but only catapulted to true fame as a talk show guest. He was unpredictable and wicked, often speaking about his own struggles with mental health and addiction.
The play is inspired by a true story. He was inpatient in a psychiatric hospital and had a gig to appear on a game show so his wife had him signed out on a four-hour day pass. Doug Wright decided to heighten the drama by having him appear on *The Tonight Show,* rather than some random game show. And he amped it up further by having it be Jack Paar's first show after moving to Los Angeles.
I get the feeling that the green light for the play was having Emmy-winning actor Sean Hayes in the role of Levant. Hayes has done a fair amount of theatre work but is best known for playing Jack on *Will and Grace.* Hayes was amazing, it was a tour de force performance. He captured the brittle wit and frenzied desperation of Levant. He wasn't for a moment concerned about being likeable or attractive, it was a very brave performance in that way.
The apex of the show has Levant playing highlights from *Rhapsody in Blue* on *The Tonight Show.* Levant's complicated relationship with Gershwin was set up earlier in the show - - Gershwin was portrayed as a sort of ghost who hung over Levant, a shadow from under which he could never escape. Levant had his greatest successes playing Gershwin and since he had actually known him, Levant felt he could never live up to his greatness.
I knew that Hayes could play the piano. He had accompanied himself in a song in *Damn Yankees* a few years ago, and that was impressive. This was something else. His playing was remarkable, and most impressive of all, he seemed to be conveying Levant's mental illness in his playing. The tempo and dynamic changes were sometimes too sudden and brusque, the whole thing had a contained terror feeling to it, a merry-go-round spinning out of control. He got a much-deserved standing ovation when he finished, which made it feel even more like "Rose's Turn" from *Gypsy,* a late-in-the-show stop-the-show number in which the character has something like a nervous breakdown and accepts the applause of the audience when it's over.
Which brings me to my favorite element of the show. The play did something that I love to no end and experience all too rarely, something I've loved about the movies of Michael Haneke, something I got from the schlocky horror movie *The Cabin in the Woods,* and something that's sometimes used by the great theatre director Ivo van Hove. The play implicated the audience in the terrible things we were seeing onstage. Levant was a tortured soul and aired his ailments for the amusement of the audience. That, for me, makes for a very rich experience.
This is what my friend Scott said about the show: "I have been reflecting on the interesting lead character here – a celebrity in the 1950s who was not only out about his mental health and addiction struggles, but it was part of his brand. Most of the stories we hear about celebrity from that era are about trying to keep the media from outing a celebrity’s mental illness or addiction problems. Here the media was asking him to rein it in. In that way, the flipped script nature of this play was really intriguing. I wonder who else was so open and honest about their personal struggles at this time? This was long so before the therapized Oprah 80s.
"The other part I have been reflecting on is the symbiosis or codependent nature of his relationship with the media for self-worth, financial stability, fame. He used and was used by the media, his wife, and himself – stuck in relationships where he was being used and not sure if or how to extract himself from these. And, at the same time, struggling whether to confront the addiction and mental health concerns, given the kinds and costs of treatments available at the time. The chains of it all. That has resonated for me."