When I was around 10yo, I saw the George Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. I was familiar with Gershwin’s pop standards but listening to his classical/jazz pieces was a new experience for me. And listening to Oscar Levant was also a new experience for me. I was probably familiar with Levant by this time because he was famous for his wit and the line, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” (This was in reference to her later films, where she played a chaste and virtuous single woman, who (usually) Rock Hudson pursued. If you have seen her earlier films, her characters were nothing like that. Levant was in Day’s first film.)
The film made me fall in love both with George Gershwin and Oscar Levant. I could not imagine anyone else performing Gershwin’s pieces. My father had a Levant EP with Rhapsody in Blue on one side and, I believe,An American in Paris on the other. I was never allowed to borrow his records, but he let me play this one over and over and over.
When I received a notice for previews for Good Night, Oscar, I immediately alerted the NYC cohort to see who wanted to see it with me. Then I dropped the ball and never got around to getting tickets. When Sean Hayes won a Tony for the lead role, I realized that ticket prices would probably be going up, so that evening I texted everyone and tickets were purchased for peg, mollyT, Mrs Devereaux, and myself. And last night was finally the night we were going to see the show.
The Belasco Theatre is gorgeous. I have probably seen something there in all my years of theater-going. It was built in 1907 and has beautiful murals, stained-glass ceiling lights, and other stained-glass fixtures. Best of all, for an old theater, the seats are wide enough for my fat ass.
The play takes place at the NBC television studios in Burbank in spring 1958 at the first Los Angeles live broadcast of Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show. Previously, the show had been broadcast from NYC. The opening scene is Paar’s office and Paar (Ben Rappaport) and the head of NBC Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) are discussing Levant’s upcoming appearance on the show that evening. The other two scenes are Levant’s green room and the set of The Tonight Show.
Levant has gotten a four-hour pass to leave a psychiatric facility where his wife June (Emily Bergl) has had him committed. June asked for the pass and lied, saying that Levant would be attending their daughter’s high school graduation. Paar and Levant had set up the appearance before he was sent to the facility and June had not found out about it until that day. She knew he needed an audience and their approval, so she asked for the pass.
Paar wants Levant on his first LA show because he is Paar’s favorite guest. The play’s title comef from Paar’s nightly end sign-off – “Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are.” Levant is a raconteur, known for his wit and humor and obnoxiousness and inability to censor himself. He openly discusses his mental breakdowns on TV. (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”) Sarnoff lays down the law that they will not discuss politics, religion, or sex, which both Paar and Levant ignore.
But Levant is still ill and is treating his schizophrenia with various drugs. While sitting in the green room, Levant shakes and cannot sit still in the manner of many mentally ill people and addicts. The voices have not gone away despite the electroshock treatments.
Levant compares himself unfavorably to his friend Gershwin, which he points to as the reason for his depression.
Levant’s hospital aide Alvin Finney (Marchánt Davis) tries to keep Levant in line and away from drugs and alcohol while he is out of the facility but is undermined by the production assistant Max Weinbaum (Alex Wyse), who is also Sarnoff’s nephew.
This all sounds sad, but the play is not sad at all. Although you feel for Levant, throughout the play he spouts very funny lines and tells sad stories with amusing asides. The other actors are given funny lines also. Sarnoff gets the ‘woke’ speech in which he criticizes Levant’s humor as misogynistic and not politically correct (he does not use those words), which I doubt is something Sarnoff would have said in 1958.
Despite his protests, Levant agrees to end the interview by playing the piano but only if he performs his own piece. But for reasons you will see, he does not do that. Hayes is a classical pianist who wanted to be a conductor and you can feel the spirit of both Gershwin and Levant possess his body when he performs. The audience gave Hayes one of the longest mid-show applauses I have ever heard.
During his piano performance, there are repeat shadows of Levant playing – a callback to the film An American in Paris, where in the film Levant multiplies himself to be the conductor and all the musicians in the orchestra, which Weinbaum had mentioned earlier in the play. And the soundproofing for the studio looks just the walls of a padded cell in an insane asylum.
When Levant mentions going to Gershwin’s apartment at 103rd and Riverside, I experienced a small frisson of delight because next to George’s apartment was his brother Ira’s and I have been there twice for The Secret City fundraisers. The apartments are mirrors of each other.
All the actors were fantastic. There was also John Zdrojeski as George Gershwin and understudies in voiceover roles – Thomas Michael Hammond as the announcer, Stephanie Janssen as Jane Wyman and Helen, Paar’s secretary, and Max Roll as Robert Young. What were Jane Wyman and Robert Young doing a voiceover for? The stars of Father Knows Best made the pre-show announcements and were very confused as to why people would have phones inside a theater because the cords are not long enough.
Both pre-show and after-show we were entertained by jazz music and the incidental music was performed by Leandro Varady (piano), Christopher Merril (upright bass), Marques Carrol (trumpet), and Robert Dicke (drums).
Emilio Sosa (Project Runway) made the costumes and I coveted June Levant’s coat and dress – the lining of the coat was the same material as the dress. It was all very 1950s. (One funny thing is that actors’ bios in the Playbill all usually list Law & Order but now they all list The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.)
Playwright Doug Wright gave us an evening that did not really exist. It is based on a real incident (the four-hour pass was actually to attend a game show) but “in spirit, it’s largely true” per Wright. Director Lisa Peterson did a great job also. Lighting designers are Carolina Ortiz-Herrara and Ben Stanton. Sound design is by André Pluess. I have no complaints about any of their work. And scenic designer Rachel Hauck created a brilliant set that seamlessly changes from one room to another by sliding across or from behind
By Carene Lydia Lopez