Reviews

Good Night, Oscar ***

By: Paulanne Simmons

May 1, 2023: From 1957 to 1962, Jack Parr reigned over late night television from Studio 6B in Rockefeller Plaza. The show was known for the wide range of Paar’s guests, from intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. to Hungarian diva Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Ben Rappaport & Sean Hayes in “Good Night, Oscar”.

By: Paulanne Simmons

May 1, 2023: From 1957 to 1962, Jack Parr reigned over late night television from Studio 6B in Rockefeller Plaza. The show was known for the wide range of Paar’s guests, from intellectuals like William F. Buckley Jr. to Hungarian diva Zsa Zsa Gabor. 

One of Paar’s frequent guests was pianist, composer and wit Oscar Levant. Today, except for some people of a certain age, the names Paar and Levant will draw a blank. So most people who buy tickets to see Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar will do so to see its star, Sean Hayes, best known as Jack McFarland on the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace.”

However, Hayes has more than star power. He flawlessly captures all of Levant’s outward ticks and inner anguish. He also proves to be a talented pianist in his own right (I saw the show with my piano teacher just to make sure).

Sean Hayes

Set in 1958, Good Night, Oscar opens when “The Tonight Show” host, Jack Paar (Ben Rappaport), is making his West Coast debut. Two hours before the show, Levant, one of the guest stars, along with Jayne Mansfield and ventriloquist Señor Wences, seems to have disappeared.  

NBC’s president, Robert Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), wants to bring on bandleader Xavier Cugat. Paar insists Levant will show up. He is willing to put up with Levant’s moods and neuroses because he knows that is precisely what makes him so amusing.

Finally Oscar’s wife June (Emily Bergl) arrives with the news that she has had Oscar committed to a mental institution. But not to worry. She’s obtained a four-hour pass so that he can appear that night. And soon Levant does show up, in the diligent if not tender care of an orderly (Marchánt Davis). June  provides a new suit of clothing and words of encouragement. Now the only problem is convincing Levant to do what he does best… play the piano.]

Emily Bergl & Sean Hayes.

The opening scenes are filled with clever dialogue expertly delivered. But even with Lisa Peterson’s brisk direction, the show wanders until Levant appears. With Hayes on stage, the show gets on its feet.

Oscar is an obsessive-compulsive who must stir his coffee five times in one direction and then five times in the other. He is unpredictable, disagreeable and prone to clever and cutting remarks. He seems to dislike everyone, including himself.

Even worse, Oscar hears disturbing voices, the most disturbing belonging to his friend George Gershwin, who insists Oscar play  “Rhapsody in Blue” while Oscar wants to play his own compositions. Gershwin’s elegant ghost  (John Zdrojeski) is so intimidating he causes Oscar to fall into a tailspin that leaves him in such bad shape only June can prop him up. 

Because despite his self-loathing and bitter assessments of others, Oscar really does love his wife. Some of the best and most revealing scenes are between Oscar and June. The play needs more of them.

Too much of Good Night, Oscar is devoted to Levant and Paar’s famous one-liners. Some of them are genuinely funny. Certainly the audience laughs throughout. But they don’t do much for the play dramatically. We wish we knew more about Oscar Levant before saying goodnight.

Good Night, Oscar ***
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44 Street.
Runs through August 27
Photography: Joan Marcus

Ben Rappaport, Sean Hayes & Peter Grosz.