Chatter on the wire

In his 1940 memoirs, A hint of ignorance, composer-storyteller-pharmaceutical enthusiast Oscar Levant recalls a train trip he took with his idol, George Gershwin. After offering the talkative Gershwin a sleeping pill (“with the air of a man offering a friend an after-dinner mint”), Levant was mildly surprised that Gershwin had commandeered the more comfortable lower berth of the sleeping car than Levant had planned to use himself. . As Levant tried unsuccessfully to settle into the rickety upper bunk for the night, Gershwin opened one eye, looked up at him, and muttered sleepily, “Upper bunk, lower bunk.” This is the difference between talent and genius.

Good night Oscar
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This difference haunts the Levant we meet in Doug Wright Good night Oscar, now premiering at The Goodman with Sean Hayes. It’s 1958 and Levant is to appear on The show tonight with Jack Paar (the man who animated the franchise between Steve Allen and Johnny Carson). Paar (Ben Rappaport) is already unhappy that NBC is having him give the show a try from Hollywood, instead of what he (and many others) consider to be the more urban and sophisticated world of New York. NBC President Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) worries that the notoriously cowardly Levant won’t show up at all — or will, but laden with one-liners not ready for prime time. When Levant’s wife, June (Emily Bergl), walks in and lets Paar know that Oscar will be arriving at the studio straight from a closed room (she’s been fighting over a four-hour pass), it’s obvious the things could go wrong at any time. .

In some ways, Good night Oscar shares narrative DNA with the 1982 film (and later musical) my favorite yearin which a live television variety show (modeled on Sid Caesar Your show of shows) brings in Peter O’Toole’s alcoholic matinee idol as a guest. There’s even a lovable young production assistant in the form of Max Weinbaum (Ethan Slater), Sarnoff’s nephew brimming with enthusiasm for (and impressions of) Levant. (The invisible Jayne Mansfield is the other guest on the evening’s program.) The same dramatic surface tension – will the show go on? – animates the plot of both stories. (Spoiler alert: Levant is coming to set, and the script is inspired by real one-liners Levant dropped on the show Paar. But without giving anything away, suffice it to say that it offers so much more than lines laughing.)

As my favorite year, the best moments of Wright’s play (directed by Lisa Peterson) are those that confront us with our own complicity in enjoying the spectacle of a man whose antics amuse while revealing real pain and personal demons. Accompanied by Alvin Finney (Tramell Tillman), a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital who isn’t eager to see his own medical school plans turned upside down by his celebrity pill-seeking load, and literally haunted by the presence of long-dead Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), Hayes’s Levant knows that part of the reason people love watching him is that he Is bring an element of danger. And Rappaport’s Paar, who tells his boss he wants to book “people who treat small talk with all the boldness, all the danger of a high-flying act,” wants it both ways. He wants Oscar out on the wire, but doesn’t actually endanger the show by crashing to the ground.

It’s a difficult balancing act, as Levant’s self-mockery of his own mental frailty was one of his selling points, often overshadowing his undeniable musical gifts. When Max reminds Levant of the brilliant scene of the 1951s An American in Paris where he appears as all the members of an orchestra playing Gershwin Concerto in F, you can almost feel the musician’s self-loathing and regret rolling like a noxious black cloud. Playing the cynical court jester and winger (along with being hailed as an interpreter of another man’s work, rather than the creator of his own compositions) paid off in terms of fame and financial stability , but that is part of his soul.

Hayes, better known as the narcissistic Jack McFarland of will and grace, removes all memories of this confident character even without a cause in minutes. But it doesn’t just give a Levant feel (that’s what Max is for). Nor does his physical tics and other manifestations of mental fog (always cut at the last minute with a biting quip) fall into the material’s trap of asking us to applaud his ability to turn mental illness into a punch line. Coming to the show may be good for Levant in some ways, as Bergl’s June argues, but we see what TV audiences couldn’t: the way Levant has to summon the character of Irascible Oscar the Grouch through an alchemy of abnegation. .

I would say that Wright, who already addressed the conflict between genius and madness in the years 1995 Quills, on the Marquis de Sade in an asylum, could push us further to face this malaise. It’s only more relevant now that reality TV and social media have numbed us in some ways to the psychological disintegration of celebrities like Kanye West (and former presidents) performing in public. (The revelation that Levant ended up at Mount Sinai because he finally started abusing his wife in the middle of a depression certainly seems understated here.) which comes in at around 90 minutes, without intermission) offer their own critique. Where is the line between an entertaining provocation and a call for help? In Good night Oscarit’s nowhere near as clear as Gershwin’s upper bunk/lower bunk hierarchy.