Good Night Oscar at the Goodman is theater at its best!

In the 1970s, I was twelve years old and television didn’t have hundreds of programs to watch. After 10:30 p.m. the TV programs started to end and around midnight you could hear the national anthem playing which meant the network was able to shut down. When I could stand, I loved watching Johnny Carson on Tonight. I loved the wit and humor of Johnny and his adorable sidekick, Ed McMahon. Johnny preceded Jack Paar, whose show was the Tonight Show franchise from 1957 to 1962.

Jack Paar, at the time, was hosting the hottest late-night talk show on television, and his favorite guest was pianist-turned-comedian Oscar Levant.

“I am a concert pianist; that’s a pretentious way of saying that I’m unemployed right now. —Oscar Levant

Oscar, known for his witty one-liners and highly controversial commentary, made him Jack’s go-to guest star. But there was one time Oscar came on Jack’s show that was so remarkable that Doug Wright wrote what can only be described as one of the best new plays written, called Goodnight Oscar.

Goodman Theater brings to its Goodnight Oscar stage, which is sure to hit Broadway. This new piece was phenomenal. Featuring the life, love and blurry lines of Oscar Levant, whose career went from stardom to exploiting him as an artist, which sounds cruel, but Oscar needed it to survive. Oscar, who said he had erased the fine line between genius and madness, wanted us to witness his frailties and talk openly on TV about his neuroses and hypochondria to compensate for others who were talking about him as he was, a lost soul unaware of his genius. Although Oscar loved people and being around them, he didn’t mind hurting anyone’s feelings and was brutally honest. Oscar lived his life in public, and not only did he love an audience, but having an audience was an aphrodisiac.

Goodnight Oscar begins with Jack Paar, masterfully played by Ben Rappaport, discussing his desire to bring Oscar Levant to his opening show which has recently moved to another location for the ratings.

Unfortunately, Jack is in a war of words with producer Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), who is upset that Levant is late and doesn’t want Levant as a guest, fearing he will sink to show. Sarnoff, ready to bring another guest, does not know that Levant is in an insane asylum and needs his wife’s permission to leave the infirmary.

Once Oscar appears at the NBC studio, Sarnoff gives him the riot act of being late and advises him on topics he should avoid discussing, which Oscar vehemently protests. We get another stellar performance from Emily Bergl as vaudeville performer June Levant, known as June Gale, one of the Gale Sisters. He was the person who had Oscar committed after hearing voices in his head that sent him into psychotic rages.

Jack starts the show off with his Oscar introduction. “Oscar Levant is not just a spirit; it is a spirit of spirit. He really said some of the smartest things of our time. But that’s an understatement, he’s as nervous as he is intelligent. For every pearl that comes out of his mouth, a pill goes in. And once the curtain is up, that Jack and Oscar sheen begins.

Best known for Jack McFarland, Will’s close friend from college on the show Will and Grace, Sean Hayes is phenomenal is Oscar Levant. I had the pleasure of seeing some of Jack Paar’s shows with Levant, and Hayes nailed the role, playing it to perfection. He captured his mannerism, his sharp and piquant wit, a hypochondriac addicted to prescription drugs, and Hayes mesmerized audiences with his performance as Oscar Levant.

Tramell Tillman (Alvin), Ethan Slater (Max) and John Zdrojeski as Geroge Gershwin, all of whom made their Goodman Theater debuts, were outstanding and made Goodnight Oscar a complete masterful performance. Goodnight Oscar is one of those plays that you crave for more once it’s over and you want to hit the rewind button and start all over again. It is so good !

By the age of twelve, Levant was already playing the piano and fell in love with the works of George Gershwin, with which he built his orchestral platform by playing his music. Levant and Gershwin become good friends; under what Oscar said, they agree that Gershwin was a master composer, and he was not.

In 1952, Oscar Levant suffered a massive heart attack, which damaged his confidence, causing him to fall into a deep depression. And on August 14, 1972, Levant died. Oscar Levant said he harbored two characteristics in his life, jealousy and revenge, but he forgot to add a remarkable genius who was way ahead of his time. No matter if you know anything about Oscar Levant, Goodnight Oscar is a must play.

Let’s Play highly recommend Goodnight Oscar at the Goodman Theatre.
Goodman Theater
Good night Oscar
Written by Doug Wright
Directed by Lisa Peterson
On view until April 24, 2022

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