Anything Can Happen at Good Night, Oscar

If you’re thinking that Good Night, Oscar, now playing at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, is going to be a calm, relaxing experience, you’ll likely want to set your expectations aside. The new play is not only a completely unforgettable emotional rollercoaster, but it might also be one of the best plays on Broadway this year. 

For those who aren’t as familiar, the show is based on the real-life NBC interview between Oscar Levant and Jack Parr on The Tonight Show. Levant was a popular, multi-talented celebrity in the twentieth century who is regarded as “America’s first publicly dysfunctional celebrity” (NPR). While he did have a meltdown during his guest segment on The Tonight Show, which was then hosted by Jack Parr, he always gave an authentic portrayal of mental illness at a time when it was otherwise taboo. For those interested in more of the history of the figures, the show’s website has a page dedicated to the subject.

The play itself takes place the night of the famous “incident” and begins as Jack Parr is getting ready ahead of the broadcast. Most of the show takes place in the preparation stages of that day, but we do get to see the live broadcast occur as well as what happens in the moments after. The plot moves quickly, but it isn’t hard to follow along with what is happening. The show is part drama, part comedy, part historical reenactment, part concert, and just about everything you could wish for when you want to see a Broadway show. 

The book itself is strong, but the performers bring the plot to life. Ben Rappaport makes a charismatic and driven Jack Paar, an excellent contrast to Sean Hayes performance of a lifetime. From the second he steps on the stage, he completely embodies the presence of Oscar Levant, rarely taking a moment for a breather. He’s able to jump between comedy and drama within seconds flawlessly, never leaving the audience feeling jarred or confused. Emily Bergl and Marchánt Davis played well together as Levant’s care and support team, often perfectly contradicting each other to reach their own unique visions of their shared end goal, which helped drive the plot’s tension. While not a major character, John Zdrojeski left a lasting impression and successfully helped to drive the show as George Gershwin. Last, but certainly not least, Peter Grosz as Sarnoff and Alex Wyse as Max both grounded the show by helping to interject the outsider perspective, as well as remind the audience of the highly contrasting public views of Levant.

As a whole, the cast has impeccable comedic timing and a level of chemistry that makes every moment feel completely authentic. In many shows, there’s a level of suspension of disbelief, but Good Night, Oscar requires no buy-in to make it feel real. There is, of course, a singular exception – when Hayes plays Rhapsody in Blue on the piano, most of the audience is on the edge of their seats glaring at the piano, trying to see if there is some chance that the incredible talent on stage was somehow an element of show magic. It is indeed real, and one of the many moments when the audience’s jaws literally drop open. 

The show is undoubtedly incredible, but it is also incredibly relevant. On the surface, major concerns like media censorship, acceptable airtime topics, and media representation are all discussed, sometimes through controversial subjects like politics, sex, and religion. Beyond that, mental illness is portrayed in a format that is empathetic and helps the audience to quite literally get into the head of Levant. We still see the world through the eyes of the characters, which in Levant’s case is comedy-centric, but the audience is left thinking about so much of their real world without the notion being too heavy or draining to process.

After the show, I decided to stage door since I had quite a bit of time before my train. Not only were all of the audience members friendly and respectful, but the cast members were also extremely kind and a pleasure to meet. Five out of the seven cast members visited the stage door, and they all made the experience a memorable one.

Good Night, Oscar is a show that has something for everyone and anyone can enjoy. It is the rare production that makes you reevaluate what is possible on stage, especially with a cast of just seven performers. The show runs now through August 27, 2023 at the Belasco Theatre.

If you’ve seen Good Night, Oscar, be sure to let me know what you think of it!

Have a terrific day!

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