Review: Sean Hayes Is a Miracle In ‘Good Night, Oscar’

Hayes is busy as a freeway and entertaining without pause in his sensational portrayal of Oscar Levant in one of the few Broadway shows that unimpeachably deserves its tumultuous standing ovation.

Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in ‘Good Night, Oscar.’ Joan Marcus

Good Night, Oscar | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | Belasco Theater | 111 W 44th St | (212) 239-6200

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“And the Tony award goes to . . . Sean Hayes!” I hope I don’t jinx it, but if my prediction is right, I think you’ll be hearing those words on network television Sunday night, June 11, at the annual celebration of the best achievements of the year in the Broadway theatre. Anyway, win or lose, my enthusiasm for this lovable lunatic as the incarnation of the late, great Oscar Levant is boundless. Personally, I have seen nothing on the New York stage this season to match it.

Pity the poor folks who don’t remember—or never heard of—Oscar. From lavish Technicolor movie musicals with Gene Kelly (An American in Paris), Fred Astaire (The Bandwagon) and Doris Day (Romance on the High Seas) to best-selling record albums playing George Gershwin to quotable quips on TV talk shows in the days when TV talk shows were still wild, witty and wonderful, Oscar was a favorite guest—spontaneous, outrageous, unscripted, and irreverent, in the same league as Tallulah Bankhead, Groucho Marx, and Truman Capote. You could always depend on him to ad lib something the country would talk about the next day, but even in his heyday you couldn’t always find him where he said he’d be. (Many TV show appearances were forcibly canceled because as the world’s most famous hypochondriac he was often hospitalized on the night of a guest shot and couldn’t show up.) This glorious new Broadway visit with Oscar Levant cuts to the chase as soon as the curtain goes up.

Ben Rappaport (as Jack Paar) and Sean Hayes (as Oscar Levant) in ‘Good Night, Oscar.’ Joan Marcus

The setting is an NBC studio in Rockefeller Plaza where Jack Paar is hosting the popular pre-Johnny Carson Tonight show. Levant is a guest, along with Jayne Mansfield and Señor Wences, but as the play begins he is late for the broadcast because his wife June has had him committed to an asylum where he’s undergoing electro-shock treatments and living on an army of drugs. She’s arranged for a four-hour pass, but it’s a toss of the dice whether he shows up at all.

Meanwhile, in the candid, carefully revealing play by Doug Wright, directed by Lisa Peterson, bits and pieces of Levant’s life are offered by the nervous people pacing Oscar’s dressing room, like NBC president Robert Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) who is desperate to avoid any on-camera discussion of sex, politics or Oscar’s personal problems that might upset the NBC audience; Jack Paar himself (Ben Rappaport) who encourages anything that will guarantee a rating; a young network clone (Alex Wyse) who is Oscar’s biggest fan; Alvin Finney (Marchant Davis), a medical assistant assigned to guard the drugs he’s brought along (in case of emergency) from the loony bin Oscar currently calls home; and Oscar’s long-suffering wife June (Emily Bergl). Extracting from him the facts of his deranged life and the clues to his personality, they are all perfect foils for the star.  

That would be sensational Sean Hayes, and what a star he is! In a full, lively, luxurious and mannered performance, he’s busy as a freeway and entertaining without pause: squinting at imaginary objects through blurred vision, tortured and in constant pain both real and imagined, but dependably hilarious. Hayes is just the way I remember Levant—a world-famous schizophrenic whose talent for extemporaneous humor produced controversial results—with every tic and frown in place. Told if he doesn’t pull himself together they’ve got Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat waiting in the wings to replace him, Oscar snaps: “The man is to music what Del Monte is to fresh pineapple!” It’s not easy to be funny, terrified, irascible, and six feet away from a nervous breakdown all at once, but Sean Hayes is a miracle of movement, timing, and surprise. You never know where the next comic line is coming from, and sometimes in this long one-act, no intermission play there is even time for a revelatory line that makes you wince with feeling. The play touches on his relationship with Gershwin, whose music lured Oscar into a neurotic, life-altering love affair (“I gave up my own life so I could be a footnote in his”).

What all the exposition and anguish lead up to, of course, is Oscar doing what he did best of all: playing Gershwin on a grand piano, in a sold-out concert hall, in a movie scene (if you’ve never seen him play every member of the orchestra playing and conducting “Concerto in F” in An American in Paris, directed by Vincente Minnelli, you haven’t lived yet). Sean Hayes sits down at the polished Steinway, plays the entire “Rhapsody in Blue” triumphantly, brings down the house. Who knew, watching him on Will and Grace, that he was an accomplished, show-stopping concert pianist? For this, and countless other reasons, he turns Good Night, Oscar into one of the very few Broadway shows I have seen in recent years that truly, honestly and unimpeachably deserves its tumultuous standing ovation.

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Review: Sean Hayes Is a Miracle In ‘Good Night, Oscar’