I would not recommend showing up an hour and 20 minutes into a Broadway show, but it sure would be nice if you could do that at Good Night, Oscar. The play, structured around Oscar Levant’s appearance on The Tonight Show With Jack Paar in 1958, idles in neutral for the bulk of its run time, falling into that Wikipedia-theater trap of having characters relay their histories to each other via factoid. But once the TV taping starts, the thing shifts into gear and the performances come to life — or really, one key performance. Sean Hayes as Levant, a piano virtuoso and wit who made appearances on Jack Paar between hospitalizations for mental illness, is who everyone is here to see, and like his character, he rises to the occasion once the cameras are on. Hayes is witty and rueful when he’s trading quips with Paar and then pulls off an 11-o’clock (or really, 9:30 p.m.) feat of piano-playing in character. It’s a sequence that’s rich and spectacular, bringing to bear all the elements of the play that had been merely stated earlier. It’s a performance about the self-destructiveness of performance, self-immolating but also making the production burn bright.
It does, however, take a lot of explaining to get there. Levant is an obscure subject to put at the center of a play. Doug Wright’s script fills us in as Paar (Ben Rappaport, charming with more than a dab of slime in his hair) tells NBC head Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) that Levant’s daringly risqué quips bring in the TV viewers and then Levant’s wife, June (Emily Bergl), describes the state of their marriage. She has checked Oscar into an institution, and she’s also decided that appearing on the show will do him good and wangled a four-hour pass to go on The Tonight Show. Once Oscar does show up, there’s more exposition to be had, much of it via an overeager NBC PA named Max (Alex Wyse), who’s conveniently a pop-culture obsessive. In between episodes of being berated by Oscar, Max briefs us about Levant’s history as a pianist sidekick in the movies, notably alongside Gene Kelly in An American in Paris and as a performer who was often overshadowed by George Gershwin. In his dressing room, starting to spiral before the show begins, Oscar also tries to wheedle more medication out of the orderly who’s supervising his leave (Marchánt Davis, mostly there to deliver a few lines noting that Gershwin was really cribbing from Black artists at the Cotton Club) and confronts visions of the late Gershwin himself (John Zdrojeski, done up in tails like the villain of a 1920s New Yorker cartoon), who acts like the Mozart to Levant’s Salieri. Lisa Peterson, directing, tries to keep things moving by having all these characters speed in and out of Oscar’s dressing room at a clip that makes you feel like you’re watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel crossed with Frasier, but the amount of context being stuffed down our gullets deadens the vitality. You can’t get to door-slamming comedy with that much insulation.
All this is really purpose-built around Hayes, who has found in Levant (after, reportedly, conflict with a previous playwright) a character that doesn’t necessarily match his talents as much as give him the opportunity to bring out skills he hasn’t displayed before. On Will & Grace, Hayes won an Emmy for his flamboyantly upbeat work as Jack, but playing Levant allows him to shift into a weightier register and display his talent at the piano. Early in the evening, he’s heavy on the outside-in affectation, emphasizing his jowls and lumbering around as if to make it clear that this is a Serious Performance. It’s a style that feels akin to any number of Oscar-winning biopic performances, or (as I thought in a doubtful moment) Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses — more about telegraphing that you’re transforming into someone than providing insight into them. But soon, Hayes grows looser and more comfortable. He’s at home with Levant’s witticisms as approximated by Wright, which depend on the kind of old-fashioned comic timing Hayes has in spades — “The network feels …” Sarnoff starts telling Oscar at one point, to which he responds, “The network feels!?” Hayes soon starts to lock in on the character’s internal conflict about his role as an entertainer. He loves an audience, but his persona involves beating himself up for their pleasure. He wants to perform his own work but doubts his own talent. Wright’s writing is best when it emphasizes the way that the people around Oscar make excuses to themselves about using him for their own means, whether for ratings (in Paar’s case) or to calm their own conscience (in June’s). In this telling, Oscar’s making excuses for himself too. Hayes emphasizes that childlike “Look at me, I’ll do anything for you” impulse that’s innate in many a performer, the way that the desire to please overrides their own self-preservation, whether they’re doing a pratfall or playing a concerto.
All that is better enacted than talked about, so Good Night, Oscar only really gets going once Hayes as Oscar starts to perform. In a one-on-one talk with Paar, Hayes nails a series of Levant quips (or approximations thereof; one line about dissecting a frog is really E.B. White), and Rappaport does some good business with a mic, pushing it closer to Hayes’s mouth as he eggs him on to talk about politics, sex, and religion. Then there’s that piano performance. The piece Hayes plays is, as it turns out, crucial to the plot, so I won’t get into it, but the way he plays it is more important than either the title or his skill (though, yes, Sean Hayes can play the piano very well). He conveys depths in the way that Levant reluctantly slides back into his virtuosity over the course of the performance — a coiling resentment of and yet thrill at his own talent. The play, having hit its high point, wraps up quickly soon after, and it’s a letdown to return both Hayes and Oscar to Earth. There’s a lesson in there: To understand performers, you have to see them in action; no amount of describing can substitute. But if you nail that re-creation, you can get at something deep about them. The playing’s the thing, to mangle that other famous quote vehicle, wherein to catch their consciousness.
Good Night, Oscar is at the Belasco Theatre.