Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar takes place on one fateful night: Oscar Levant is booked as a guest on his friend Jack Paar’s late night show. Wright uses the production, a star vehicle for Sean Hayes, to introduce audiences to famously caustic – and famously tormented – Levant. But in addition to asking who Levant was, the production raises a different question: Who is this play for?
Levant, the comedian-musician best known for bon mots like “A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first,” “Once I make up my mind, I’m full of indecision,” “Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character,” and “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.” Like that last quote purports, he did indeed have schizophrenia, for which he has been covertly institutionalized. In Good Night, Oscar’s wife June (Emily Bergl) shows up to explain to Paar why he is late, and what to expect.
Wright’s play, a single-act, 100-minute play helmed with precision but not passion by Lisa Peterson, rises to a crescendo just like one of the numbers Levant was known for playing. It escalates gradually – first our supporting players discuss Levant, then Levant arrives to provide more exposition about himself, then Levant finally gets to square off with Paar (Ben Rapaport), blue humor and excellent piano skills and all.
It’s easy to watch, and Hayes’ hits all the requisite beats in portraying mental illness symptoms. But Good Night only lifts off in the show’s last third; it only comes alive when when Levant himself is live. So if Wright saddles the show with backstory on Levant, including his frustrating relationship with the late George Gershwin, why does he also assume that the audience is otherwise steeped in Old Hollywood enough to understand who Jack Paar is and what his show signified, or that references to contemporaries like Xavier Cugat, don’t need similar explanation?
Good Night traffics in a lane similar to Matthew Lombardo’s Looped and Billy Van Zandt’s The Property Known As Garland – biographical sketches that straddle the line between lecture and performance. It’s got a tepid grip on how to portray the show’s subject to the audience, and what that relationship should be. But it does have one thing going for it: a winning cast that includes Marchánt Davis as a dutiful orderly and Alex Wyse as a starstruck production assistant. In watching them act with Hayes, always in the driver’s seat as Levant, we never worry that we’re in good hands.