Reviews

Good Night, Oscar *****

By: Isa Goldberg

April 29, 2023: Sean Hayes, in a ghost-like form of himself, unrecognizable even, has arrived, turning on the lights of Broadway. It’s a shocking star turn for the sit com actor, Hayes (“Will & Grace”) is known to be. Here, In Doug Wright’s “Good Night, Oscar”, the actor portrays pianist, composer and raconteur Oscar Levant.

Sean Hayes in “Good Night Oscar”.

By: Isa Goldberg

April 29, 2023: Sean Hayes, in a ghost-like form of himself, unrecognizable even, has arrived, turning on the lights of Broadway. It’s a shocking star turn for the sit com actor, Hayes (“Will & Grace”) is known to be. Here, In Doug Wright’s “Good Night, Oscar”, the actor portrays pianist, composer and raconteur Oscar Levant.

Looking like he has a long sad chin, and a protruding belly popping from his thin frame, Hayes embodies a disturbed and disturbing man. Given that he portrays Levant, who was indeed noticed for his genius, it makes for a truthful, albeit strange and extraordinary picture.

With his head bobbing, making circles with it while he chain smokes, squinting, and nursing a nervously wagging foot, Hayes is in constant motion. It’s the night of “The Tonight Show’s” west coast premiere. And watching Oscar in the green room, we see how completely out of step he is. His gait, as awkward as Chaplin’s, but lacking the grace of balance, or structure even.

Ben Rappaport, Sean Hayes & Peter Grosz.

While in the green room before the show, Levant makes music with a spoon, creamer and sugar – the objects he can rely on. It’s “unconscious” he explains to Max (Alex Wyse), the production assistant. It’s a revealing comment about the pianist whose artistry was more than he could consciously accept.  Among many surprises in this show, Hayes is a brilliant pianist!

Set in 1958 at NBC television studios in Burbank, the show revolves around the most colorful characters. They’re people we feel familiar with – Jack Paar, an inspiring presence played by Ben Rappaport, and Bob Sarnoff. As played by Peter Grosz, the audience can anticipate Sarnoff’s well-deserved downfall, even though historically he led the network well into the 1970’s.

Paar and Sarnoff, are played quite literally for who they are known to be in television history. This play is also about them, as well as Levant’s wife, the actress and singer June Levant, who performed in vaudeville, and later with The Gale Sisters, a dance act.

Emily Bergyl gives an outstanding performance, creating a character who has matured well beyond her years, as a starlet. While June lives by the social dictates a woman in the 1950’s respected, she is also a woman of strong determination, whose fears are both rational, and too weighty.

Emily Bergyl & Ben Rappaport.

Playwright Doug Wright brings well-honed skills to writing historical characters into fiction, such as he did in “Grey Gardens”, “War Paint”, and “I Am My Own Wife”. In “Oscar”, Wright mines the life of a most extraordinary man living in a most unextraordinary time. A man of exception, and importance who, now in his 50’s, can no longer contain himself in the ordinary world.

As directed by Lisa Peterson, the production is steeped in those lackluster years, in the late 1950’s – the end of the Eisenhower era.  Peace and prosperity prevailed, or it if didn’t we were to act as it if did. The Andrews Sisters sang about it, the catholic church dictated it to the television networks, and normalcy was embraced as righteous.

That Hayes is so exceptional here has to do with the depth of his observations, about himself. As if the actor’s mind, objectively gazing into his soul, can only accept what he sees, because he cannot adjust it. 

Ben Rappaport & Sean Hayes

In this way, he reveals Oscar’s disease and his unruly behaviors, along with his artistry. Later in Act II, he plays “Rhapsody in Blue” wildly passionately, until he physically and emotionally falls apart. It’s evocative of the crazed musician in Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus”, performing Beethoven’s Opus 111.

In a sense, Oscar’s devil is George Gershwin – the most popular composer of his time. Levant, in the green room commiserates, “They’d stuff my fishbowl full of presidents and say, ‘Play Rhapsody In Blue, why don’t you?’ I may not have written it, but it fit my fingers like nothin’ I ever played.”

Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”) – the devil Oscar could never get past, served as a constant goad to his inner belief that he could never be good enough. But his reconciliation with Gershwin, now in heaven, is the story Wright leaves with the audience.

Sadly, for Oscar — his art, his wit, and fiery genius finally abdicate, when his psychosis assumes so fantastic a shape that his mind and will can no longer compete.

Doug Wright’s book, which is about greatness, is extraordinary. Still, Hayes is magical.

Good Night, Oscar *****
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
Between Broadway and 6th Avenue, near 6th Avenue
First Preview Date: Apr 07, 2023
Opening Date: Apr 24, 2023
Closing Date: Aug 27, 2023
Show Run Time: 1 hours and 40 minutes with no intermission
Visit GoodNightOscar.com.
Photography: Joan Marcus

Emily Bergyl & Sean Hayes.