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Queerty: Sean Hayes brings laughter and levity to Broadway’s ‘Good Night, Oscar’

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Sean Hayes in Goodnight, Oscar
Sean Hayes in ‘Good Night, Oscar.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

The Rundown

As the quippy best friend Jack McFarland, Sean Hayes brought jazz hands, tummy bumps, and uncompromising queerness to 11 seasons of Will and Grace. He now harnesses his breadth of acting and piano skills for a tour de force performance as Oscar Levant. Who?

Often forgotten by history’s cold hands of time, Levant was self-described as a “verbal vampire,” known for punchy one-liners and sidekick status in Golden Age films like The Band Wagon and An American in Paris. Comedian Jack Paar, The Tonight Show host from 1957-1962, liked Levant for his sharp tongue and virtuosic piano skills. Playwright Doug Wright lures audiences behind the scenes in Good Night, Oscar for one of Levant’s more memorable appearances.

No Tea, No Shade

Emily Bergl and Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar
Emily Bergl and Sean Hayes in ‘Good Night, Oscar.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

A loose-jowled chain smoker with a perpetual hand twitch, Hayes’ Levant hovers like an overcast cloud, his acerbic punchlines breaking through like blinding rays of sunshine. This particular appearance is not without sacrifice. Levant’s wife, June (a period-perfect Emily Bergl in a gorgeous floral wasp-waist dress designed by Emilio Sosa), has had her husband committed to the mental ward at Mt. Sinai. She’s signed him out for a few hours — accompanied by an orderly (Marchánt Davis) with a doctor’s bag overflowing with prescription pills — hoping it might temporarily alleviate his ennui.

Levant was open about his struggle with mental illness and the addictive medication cycles of that came along with it. He wanted to get in front of the public’s discomfort by joking about it, and Paar (a suave Ben Rappaport) was happy to capitalize on it for ratings.

Wright’s play — an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission — leans into the biographical as Levant chain smokes through recounting his early days in Hollywood, obsession with George Gershwin, and the debilitating envy that got in the way of his own success.

Once the exposition is out of the way, the play gains momentum as Rachel Hauck’s mid-century dressing room disappears to reveal the set of The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Hayes leans into Levant’s acerbic wit, living up to the assertion previously shared with NBC president Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), “The best jokes? The ones worth tellin’? They’re dangerous on account’a they tell the truth.”

Let’s Have a Moment

Ben Rappaport and Sean Hayes in Goodnight Oscar
Ben Rappaport, left, and Sean Hayes in ‘Good Night, Oscar.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

While Levant has agreed to appear on television, he’s less enthusiastic about taking Paar’s bait and playing the piano.

“From the grave, George [Gershwin] did me a horrible favor. He showed me the limits of my talent,” he tells a production assistant (Alex Wyse). “I stopped composing. Zip. Nada. I couldn’t compete, not with that kinda brilliance. I gave up living my own life, so I could be a footnote in his.”

But when Levant’s fingers connect with those 88 keys, magic happens. And for Hayes, who studied piano from the age of five and at one time served as musical director for an Indiana dinner theater, the convergence of actor and musician in mesmerizing.

Hayes as Levant performs Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with bloodletting fervor, contorting over the keys as the now famous melody ebbs, flows, and cascades into a triumphant finale. “He closes his eyes, tightly, as if he’s a death row prisoner awaiting a jolt from the electric chair,” describes Wright of Levant’s final moment at the piano.

The Last Word

Good Night, Oscar marks Hayes’ third time on Broadway. First, opposite Kristin Chenoweth in the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises, followed by 2016’s return engagement of An Act of God — playing none other than the title character.

If that seems ambitious, Hayes recently told the New York Times, “If you’re not scaring yourself as an actor, what are you doing? If everything’s safe, then the results will show that,” concluding that with Goodnight, Oscar, “I’m going to swing for the fences. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I’m still alive, right?”

Hayes swings big, proving that great comedic actors are only as funny as the gravitas that drives them toward humor to begin with.

Good Night, Oscar plays on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre through August 27.

Queerty