Oscar Levant, the troubled musician and prankster of the mid-century, often said he had erased “the fine line between genius and madness.”
He says it again, or some version of it, in “Good Night, Oscar,” the unconvincing biographical fantasy that premiered Monday at the Belasco Theater. But on the evidence of the character as written, and especially as impersonated by Sean Hayes in a somber if accurate performance, Levant didn’t so much erase the line as twist it.
Sure, Doug Wright’s piece fails to properly defend the genius part of the joke. Instead, it offers a spray of Levant’s most famous jokes, like the one about Elizabeth Taylor, “Always a bride, never a bridesmaid.” And instead of dramatizing how great Levant was, it just says that repeatedly. “America’s Greatest Humor.” “A bloody lion.” A Horowitz at the piano “with a grace and an ease that even Chopin could envy.”
High praise, but what we see in director Lisa Peterson’s production is far from everything. Usually it’s just a cry; Levant doesn’t seem brilliant but sick.
Since Pathos isn’t much of a dramatic engine, Wright works very hard, albeit fictionally, to up the ante. It’s 1958, the day during sweeps week when “The Tonight Show,” starring Jack Paar, will make its West Coast debut. The big guest of Paar, who leads a line-up that also includes the sex symbol Jayne Mansfield and the ventriloquist Señor Wences, is Levant, who has not arrived two hours before start time. NBC’s president, Robert Sarnoff, is threatening to replace him with popular bandleader Xavier Cugat.
But where Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) sees Levant as unreliably neurotic, and thus unappealing to the network and audience, Paar (Ben Rappaport) sees him as an artist whose unreliability and neurosis are precisely his strengths. He’s the national ID card: the man Americans hope to catch “saying something on television they know damn well you’re not supposed to say on television.” He’s good for ratings; no wonder Paar calls him his favorite mental patient.
That rule is no joke. It is only thanks to the machinations of Levant’s wife, June (Emily Bergl, excellent), that Oscar has emerged from the institution he currently calls home at a four-hour stride. When he finally arrives at the studio, with an angry nurse (Marchánt Davis) in tow, he’s exhausted, wrinkled and gloomy. June calls him “Eeyore in a cheap suit.”
Hayes, no longer the adorable sprite from “Will and Grace,” has clearly made a careful study of Levant’s mannerisms, many of which are the result of a long-standing addiction to painkillers. The work is startling, but the performance is not so much a character trait as a non-stop loop of perfectly rendered facial tics, trembling hands and compulsive gestures. His speech is strained, his temper is explosive, his target is anything that crosses his path – including himself. Beyond this palisade of behavior, little of an inner life can emerge.
To address the built-in problem of revealing such a trapped soul, and in the manner of psychiatric melodramas of the era such as “Now Voyager” and “Bigger Than Life,” Wright Levant occasionally provides reality breaks and hallucinations. Most involve George Gershwin: Levant’s friend, benefactor and bête noire, dead 20 years but still an Oedipal rival of sorts. “I’m terrified of failure,” says the glamorous ghost of Gershwin (John Zdrojeski). “But you? You don’t mind.”
Whether or not Levant minded, it’s true that by Gershwin standards he failed; few people remember him today. So massive amounts of dramaturgically suspect exhibits need to be rolled out to close the gaps. “I know the critics are all saying your best performance was in ‘An American in Paris,'” a young production assistant (Alex Wyse) tells Levant and Us. “That musical sequence – the Concerto in F – it’s a showstopper!”
When characters start informing other characters about what they would clearly already know, and (as often happens here) bray like crazy at mild jokes, something is wrong.
What that is becomes clear when Levant finally sits down for the live broadcast in the second half of the 100-minute game, after proving himself nothing but exhausting in the first half. The music starts, the curtain goes up, the lights come on and he’s still exhausting. Firing off one-liners, especially nasty ones, is not a sign of special genius; thousands of comedians do it. The fact that the one-liners come from a man who is clearly in deep trouble doesn’t make them particularly funny either. To me, watching Hayes as Levant – like watching kinescopes of Levant itself – is excruciatingly sad.
The weight of reinforcing the point of the piece thus falls heavily on Levant’s – and Hayes’ – piano playing. Peterson, the director, worked on it from the beginning. The nestled shoeboxes of Rachel Hauck’s handsome set, representing Paar’s office and, when it breaks free, Levant’s dressing room, now completely disappear to reveal a fully padded television studio with a Steinway in the middle. Hayes steps up and, after a final gruesome battle with Gershwin’s ghost, plays a seven-minute excerpt from “Rhapsody in Blue.”
It is well.
Even if it had been stunning, I don’t see how it would have made “Good Night, Oscar” satisfying; issues raised in theatrical terms also want to be resolved therein. Wright followed that principle in “I Am My Own Wife,” his 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and in his book for the unconventional musical version of “Grey Gardens,” all of which use the raw materials from which they are built to fashion to make an organic conclusion.
“Good Night, Oscar” can’t get there, but it understands the problem. A coda following the concerto may not connect the larger themes of genius and madness, but it does resolve some relationships as you would expect from a melodrama set in 1958. Selflessness and renunciation are involved. Jokes that used to be just origami with words now become ways of slipping painful truths past interpersonal censorship.
Only in those last few minutes do you look into the soul of Levant. It is not a soul made for television, although most people of its time would have known it that way. Somehow they accepted him as he was, which may not have been a blessing. When asked, in a 1965 episode of “What’s My Line,” “Have you ever managed to get much use out of various illnesses you’ve had?” he replied, “My health is the concern of the nation.” The blindfolded panel immediately knew who he was.
I only wish we did that after “Good Night, Oscar.”
Through August 27 at the Belasco Theatre, Manhattan; goodnightoscar.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.