If ever a play had good motive to front-load itself with exposition, Good Evening, Oscar is it. As soon as amongst America’s premiere wits and raconteurs, Oscar Levant has gone the way in which of many one other once-famous wits and raconteurs. Which is to say, he wants a number of exposition.
Good Evening, Oscar, the brand new bio-play by Doug Wright (I Am My Personal Spouse) starring Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) as Levant, goes a great distance in introducing this long-ago talk-show staple to trendy audiences. Whether or not it justifies the hassle is significantly much less sure.
A gifted pianist and occasional second-banana film actor, Levant is best identified at this time for his frequent talk- and game-show appearances of the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s, his aptitude for the improvised zinger and no-holds-barred confessional humor making him a sought-after, if controversial, Golden Age presence. Others would comply with in his wake – the Gore Vidals and Truman Capotes and Phyllis Newmans, however Levant was first.
And earlier than you ask Phyllis Who?, take into account that even these of fleeting fame could make for high-quality, compelling biographies. Wright, Hayes and director Lisa Peterson are probably very certain that Levant ranks amongst that record, however Good Evening, Oscar is lower than convincing.
So right here goes. Levant largely made his title as a pianist deciphering the work of his good friend and musical higher George Gershwin. He made his title as an actor as a wingman in movies like An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and Humoresque. He made his title as a TV persona with quirky, refined late-night appearances that delighted audiences with vaguely risque quips, self-deprecating jokes about his homely look, and candid disclosures about his addictions and psychological well being challenges. He was a person perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one of many period’s few personalities who might make Paar appear secure by comparability.
A few of his witticisms survive him. He’s the man who stated he knew Doris Day earlier than she was a virgin, and that beneath all of the phony tinsel of Hollywood is actual tinsel.
Ripostes like that, even at this time, may make for some delicate amusement dropped from a chat present sofa, however strung collectively and passing for dialogue they make tedious biography. Good Evening, Oscar tries very arduous to current Levant as a kind of Lenny Bruce-in-the-making – and who is aware of, possibly he was – however for all of the arduous promote, the play appears much more intent on serving as Tony bait for a hammy Hayes.
Set largely backstage at Paar’s Tonight present, a nervous – nicely, extra nervous than regular – Levant waits to make considered one of his widespread visitor appearances. This time, although, it’s completely different: Levant has spent the previous few months dedicated to a psychological ward, and thru the truth-bending ministrations of his spouse June (Emily Bergl), the drug-addicted pianist has been given a four-hour move. The supportive Paar (Ben Rappaport) is conscious of the state of affairs, however NBC honcho Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) most assuredly isn’t.
Even earlier than Levant sneaks a gullet-full of tranquilizers, we all know the Tonight look is a ticking time bomb. He tells a nasty joke about Marilyn Monroe that even at this time may elevate eyebrows, and he talks about politics and psychological issues and medicines and faith – all of the issues Sarnoff had made him promise to keep away from.
All through the play, Wright has a hallucinating Levant haunted by visits from Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), reminding us many times what’s consuming this midcentury Salieri. Decided to show that he’s each bit the equal to the good composer, Levant pledges that tonight, on Tonight, he’ll present the world simply how gifted he actually is.
So it’s greater than a bit of odd when Hayes lastly sits on the superbly lit Steinway to make the case for Levant’s value…and performs “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Title: Good Evening, Oscar
Venue: Broadway’s Belasco Theatre
Director: Lisa Peterson
Playwright: Doug Wright
Forged: Sean Hayes, Emily Bergl, Marchánt Davis, Peter Grosz, Ben Rappaport, Alex Wyse, John Zdrojeski
Operating time: 1 hr 40 min (no intermission)