This year’s Tony Awards have been announced, and it should come as no surprise that Sean Hayes has been nominated for best actor in a featured role. His turn as Oscar Levant in Good Night, Oscar (★★★☆☆) is a performance that will long be remembered for all the right reasons.
Hayes is instantly recognizable and revered for his role on television’s Will & Grace. As the flamboyant, self-absorbed Jack McFarland, he delivered some of the series’ best comedic moments, earning an Emmy award and launching him to household notoriety.
Devoted Broadway audiences may have seen him as leading man Chuck Baxter in the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises. That scored him his first Tony nomination. With his second, he’s proven himself to be an actor of depth and versatility. His embodiment of Levant is a 180-degree turn from anything he’s ever done.
Both the story and character are unique and bold choices for a commercial play. After all, ask the average person on the street if they know who Oscar Levant was and they will likely respond with a blank stare, especially since his popularity peaked in the forties and fifties.
Levant was never a matinee idol. Rather, he was a perpetual side man to A-listers like Joan Crawford and Gene Kelly. In Good Night, Oscar, his mother’s description of him surfaces. “Even then, she knew I was a shlemiel. A mug like a walrus, a physique like a loaf of challah, and a piggy bank full of plug nickels,” he says. “‘You gotta have something that compensates,’ she says.”
His list of credentials were impressive. In addition to acting in Hollywood classics that included The Band Wagon and An American in Paris, he was a trained musician and at one time, one of the highest-paid concert pianists in the U.S. He popularized George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and had a friendly, but complicated relationship with its composer.
“From the grave, George did me a horrible favor. He showed me the limits of my own talent. I stopped composing. Zip. Nada. I couldn’t compete, not with that kinda brilliance. I gave up living my own life, so I could be a footnote in his,” he says. Levant’s own composition, “Blame it on My Youth,” while popular, never reached the heights of anything written by his contemporary.
Leave it to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright to shine a long overdue spotlight on Levant in this fascinating character study. Granted, it does not provide us with a romanticized version of the multi-hyphenate talent, but it does depict the painful truth of the troubled man — and it gives Hayes the chance to flaunt his own impressive piano chops.
Good Night, Oscar opens with hard-nosed NBC President Robert Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) anxiously awaiting Levant’s arrival for The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. It’s sweeps week in 1958 Los Angeles, and the first time that the show will air live on the West Coast. The charming and cool Paar (Ben Rappaport), familiar with Levant’s idiosyncrasies and erratic behavior, is sure that his favorite guest will arrive on time.
“Folks are in bed and Oscar jolts them awake,” he explains, “all in the hope they’ll catch him saying something on television they know damn well that you can’t say on television. That’s the moment no one wants to miss.” As time ticks, Sarnoff threatens to replace him with bandleader Xavier Cugat, currently in town for a gig.
Levant finally appears — but with a companion: Alvin Finney (Marchant Davis), an orderly from the psychiatric hospital where his wife June (Emily Bergl) had him committed for inconsolable depression, severe mood swings, and substance abuse. After telling a white lie about going to his daughter’s graduation, Oscar is permitted to leave the institution for just four hours.
There’s an excessive amount of dialogue before arriving at the meat of the show, but once Hayes makes his entry, a full course, satisfying meal unfolds. With a vocal inflection that combines Jimmy Stewart and Richard Nixon and a scowl that would keep hardened criminals away, Hayes fully morphs into Levant.
Research the real man online and you’ll soon discover that Hayes has flawlessly captured his essence. Only now, he is addled and agitated by a relentless reliance on prescription pills. In 1952, after suffering a heart attack, Levant became addicted to Demerol. With every twist and twitch, it’s clear that his addiction has overtaken him. “He’s got more pills in his medicine chest than Rexall’s does in its whole pharmacy,” Paar says as he introduces his guest.
Wright’s account is loosely based on an actual event, and current audiences may find themselves pondering the ethics presented in the show. On one hand, Levant relishes the applause and adoration from the live television audience. It’s sort of a medicinal balm for his anguished soul. Yet it’s hard not to consider the recklessness undertaken by Paar and his corporate suits. They knew of Levant’s volatile condition, but cracked on nonetheless, all for the sake of ratings.
Mental health had yet to become a socially acceptable topic in 1958 and was more of a punchline than an issue to be taken seriously. For all of his accomplishments, Levant never had the chance to appreciate how talented he was.
Fortunately, he’s been given a posthumous platform with Wright’s drama. Wright has always supported and written about the underdogs. In the solo play I Am My Own Wife, he explores the life of trans activist Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
In a musicalized version of Grey Gardens, he gives us a peek into the infested estate and sad lives of “Big” and “Little” Edie Beale. He causes us to root for two, determined, women cosmetic entrepreneurs, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden in the musical War Paint. Now, he puts an underappreciated American talent front and center.
Lisa Peterson, who directed the world premiere last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, returns to ably guide the Broadway transfer. In spite of its 95-minute run time, it could use some tightening. Hayes’ performance of a lifetime almost excuses all other inadequacies.
Good Night, Oscar runs through August 27 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St. in New York City. Tickets are $94 to $298. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.goodnightoscar.com.
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