Goodman’s Oscar Levant feels all the feels
Updated: Apr 6
March 26, 2022
Good Night Oscar, the new Doug Wright play now on the Albert Stage at the Goodman Theatre, is based on the life and times of the deeply troubled multidisciplinary genius Oscar Levant. The show is about a single evening when Levant's wife June gets him a pass from the psychiatric ward where he is committed to appear on the Jack Paar show during sweeps week when the network has brought the show to Los Angeles. Levant, a man teetering on many edges, comes to the studio accompanied by a well-meaning orderly, and comedy and tragedy ensues.
This is inherently an important story because Levant was loud and proud with his mental illness, with his addictions, and with his struggles to continue to create in the face of his challenges, at a time when such topics were unseemly and therefore not discussed. He was a man of extraordinary talents in many realms, and there were many who fed his demons in order to manipulate him into giving them more of what they needed. We have to ask ourselves, when is our own need as audience becoming exploitive of our icons? Where are the lines we can and cannot cross? Levant and Paar were navigating these distinctions at the birth of technological mass media: with the rise of the internet these questions become even more pressing because the network censors are gone. When do we compromise our humanity in our quest for entertainment? Perhaps an even more timely question after the Oscars (no relation) televised broadcast this weekend where a biting joke led to physical violence.
Sean Hayes is truly amazing as Levant– he has the angst, stage fright, addict bargaining and detox tremors as well as the incredible timing of the real person, and plays him in a way that we have sympathy for his struggle against his many monsters. Levant himself said that "there is a fine line between genius and insanity and I have erased this line". Hayes rides hard back and forth across that erased line in flashback/hallucinations, especially of his relationship with George Gershwin.
Theater is a team sport and Hayes is well supported by the masterfully honed script which hits most of Levant's best quotes, as well as by a talented ensemble including Emily Bergl as Levant's long suffering and empathetic wife, June, Peter Grosz as the stressed out NBC head honcho and Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar, another talent who loved to walk the high wire between utter disaster and smashing success. The chemistry of this group makes the show exactly the kind of theater we need to leave our homes to see. To sit in the dark with other humans laughing and sensing and feeling brings new meaning to life and to gathering.
A special mention needs to go to Rachel Hauck's set design which absolutely replicates the period style even while transforming from space to place.
Good Night Oscar has been extended until April 24, 2022 at the Goodman Theatre at 170 N Dearborn in Chicago's Loop so you are in luck and have time to see this moving show. For more information and to buy tickets go to https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Oscar, or call 312-443-3800.