Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Good Night, Oscar
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson

Emily Bergl and Sean Hayes
Photo by Liz Lauren
In this Goodman Theatre world premiere production, the casting of Sean Hayes, known for his sharp delivery of one-liners on the TV show "Will and Grace," as Oscar Levant is a natural. Hayes delivers everything one might expect in his role in Good Night, Oscar as the actor-pianist who was a master of that art. Levant was a frequent talk show guest who was celebrated for his work in films, radio and TV from the late 1930s until 1960. But, as firmly in Hayes's wheelhouse is his delivery of Levant quips, the character playwright Doug Wright has created gives Hayes the chance to show he can do much more.

Hayes goes to town with the Levant Wright has created: a man who is deeply troubled emotionally and severely chemically dependent, yet functional and highly self-aware. The action of Good Night, Oscar occurs over just a few hours on an evening in 1958, when Levant is to be a guest on Jack Paar's first "Tonight Show" broadcast from Los Angeles. The catch is that Levant needs to sneak out of the hospital to which he has been committed for mental health issues in order to make it to the studio. (Levant did appear numerous times on Paar's show and spoke openly about his mental illnesses–The New York Times reviewed a "Tonight Show" telecast in November 1958 and criticized Paar for exploiting Levant's fragile mental state.)

Levant makes it to the studio, sure enough, accompanied by caregiver Alvin (Tramell Tillman), who thought he was taking Levant to his daughter's high school graduation. Hayes gives Levant nervous tics–a near constant shaking of one dangling hand and jerky head motions–to show he's clearly not well. Still, he understands why he's there and is willing to go on the show–if only someone will give him some of the pills Alvin has secured out of reach in a medical bag and not ask him to play the piano.

We learn more about Levant's life as he confides in the young, sycophantic production assistant Max Weinbaum (in a hilarious, yet not-buffoonish performance by Ethan Slater). It seems Levant had the idea to compose a jazz-infused symphony until George Gershwin beat him to it with "Rhapsody in Blue." Levant backed off partially from composing after that, but became arguably the best-known piano interpreter of that piece–an honor he found limiting to his own ambitions. He is haunted by visions of a tuxedo-suited Gershwin (John Zdrojeski) reminding him of his inferiority, and despite his fame and success on so many levels, Levant confesses to feeling like a failure. Such feelings in middle-age or beyond are hardly fresh territory for dramatists (think Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman or Long Day's Journey into Night's James Tyrone), but Hayes earns our empathy just the same with his convincing, powerful performance. Not only that, but Hayes actually plays a long excerpt from Gershwin's popular "Rhapsody" on an onstage Steinway, as Levant reluctantly agreed to do on this "Tonight Show" appearance.

It's some twenty minutes before Hayes enters, but from thereon, he's on stage nonstop with his mixture of tics, quips, and a skillful homage to Levant's voice (lower, more gravelly than Hayes' Jack of "Will and Grace"). Wright opens the play with an efficient scene introducing the premise and characters–a scene livened considerably by Slater's goofily charming performance. The play opens in Paar's office (which, along with a green room and the studio, compose Rachel Hauck's effective but not hyper-realistic design). Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) is nervous about Levant's tardiness but also about what he might say on live TV if he does appear. Paar (Ben Rappaport) reassures Sarnoff that Levant's unpredictability and potential to shock is exactly what attracts his late-night audience. When Levant's wife June (Emily Bergl) arrives to explain Oscar's whereabouts and her scheme for getting him to the show, the otherwise unflappable Paar becomes a bit nervous.

Ms. Bergl gives a performance that is as laudable as is Hayes's. Her June Levant is elegant and strong. June's love mixed with exasperation for Oscar is clear, as is her resolve to do the right thing in this difficult situation. Director Lisa Peterson perfectly balances the comedy and pathos of Wright's skillfully constructed script and gets award-worthy performances from Hayes, Bergl and Slater.

Good Night, Oscar might be suspected of being a vehicle for Hayes, and while it succeeds on that level, it's more than that. It's also a touching biography of Levant, told through the lens of just a few hours in his life. And if Wright's Levant is not the equal of the aforementioned Loman and Tyrone characters, the play compassionately explores the universal dilemma of how to judge the totality of one's own life.

Given the participation of such artists as Hayes, Wright, Peterson and Slater, a Broadway transfer seems likely, though none has been announced as of this writing. If there are future lives for this script and production, Mr. Wright might consider deepening the character of Jack Paar. By all accounts, Paar was a complex person–mercurial enough to walk off his own show on air in 1960. He stretched boundaries of what could or would be done on network television and frequently fought with network bosses. The script suggests some of Paar's iconoclastic nature and maverick character as he explains to Sarnoff his reasons for booking Levant, but it fails to set us up for Paar's duplicitous baiting of Levant on air into controversial humor after Paar has assured Sarnoff he would not. Nor does it fully explore the idea that Paar may have been deliberately exploiting Levant's fragile mental health for the sake of ratings. While director Peterson and actor Rappaport might work more to suggest such motivation, it seems there's an opportunity for Wright to expand Paar into a character as nuanced and fascinating as Oscar and June Levant.

Regardless, the script in its current state is solid, highly entertaining, and moving. It's quite ready for Broadway, if that happens, and the cast is impeccable.

Good Night, Oscar, runs through April 24, 2022, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 312-4433800.