Good Night, Oscar
Good Night, Oscar

Sean Hayes Takes on the Role of a Lifetime in Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar

“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” –Oscar Levant

With his sunny smile and sly comic timing, Sean Hayes won the hearts of TV viewers as Jack McFarland on Will & Grace, taking home an Emmy and four Screen Actors Guild Awards for his work. In 2010, Hayes made a smashing Broadway debut in the hit revival of Promises, Promises, picking up a best actor Tony nomination. So, why did this effortlessly charming star spend a decade developing a play about a self-torturing pianist and caustic 1950s talk-show guest? The answer becomes clear in Hayes’s stunning, transformational performance as Oscar Levant in Good Night, Oscar, by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright. This must-see theatrical event, directed by Lisa Peterson, begins performances April 7 at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre.

“I love Oscar because I share so many things in common with him — other than the way he looks and sounds,” Hayes says with a laugh. In a joint interview with Broadway Direct, Hayes and Wright shared their passion for Levant, both as a juicy subject for a Broadway play and as a man ahead of his time in speaking publicly about mental illness.

“He was a provocateur who wasn’t afraid to say controversial things,” explains Wright, “and any comedian who traffics in subversiveness owes a debt to him. Had Oscar not entered the public arena, we wouldn’t have had the George Carlins, the Lenny Bruces, or the Dave Chappelles.”

Grainy YouTube clips of Levant reveal a slouching, dour-looking man delivering self-deprecating one-liners behind a stream of cigarette smoke. “What do you do for exercise?” asks Jack Paar, whose Tonight Show is a central element in Good Night, Oscar. Says Levant, “I stumble and then I fall into a coma,” a response that seems jarring on the page but screamingly funny in his deadpan delivery.

Levant initially became famous for performing “Rhapsody in Blue” and other pieces by his close friend George Gershwin. In 1951, he portrayed a pianist in the film classic An American in Paris. By the end of the 1950s, he was airing out his mental-health struggles in satirical fashion on TV, becoming what some have called America’s first publicly dysfunctional celebrity.

Hayes, while decidedly not dysfunctional, found many points of overlap with Levant’s life and career. “I studied piano for 20 years before becoming an actor,” he says. Hayes even earned a degree in piano performance and orchestral conducting at Illinois State University. “I thought I was going to become a composer and a music director, just like Oscar. I have dealt with anxiety and depression, just like Oscar. There is an innate dark sarcasm in him that is translated into comedy, and that’s something I felt I could tap into. He’s one of those brilliantly gifted people who is riddled with insecurity and who stuffs down his self-doubt because it’s easier to laugh at himself.”

No prior knowledge of Oscar Levant is needed to enjoy Good Night, Oscar, which is set on a night in 1958 when Levant is granted a four-hour pass from a mental-health facility to appear live on Paar’s show. Among the characters on edge about Levant’s sobriety and state of mind are his wife, June (played by Emily Bergl), and various network operatives. “The play follows what Oscar goes through in real time, interwoven with incidents from his past and how he deals with all of that through comedy,” Hayes says. “You’re going to be surprised at the story Doug tells — there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s all incredible. I don’t know how he does it.”

An expert at crafting theatrical works about real people (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens, War Paint), Wright explains that he looks for a watershed day in the subject’s life rather than attempting a full biography, which can often lapse into a walking Wikipedia entry. “The challenge is to find a moment that cuts to the soul of a historical figure,” he says. Laughing, the playwright admits he initially questioned the idea of Hayes playing Levant. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of quirky casting,’” he says. But when the two met for an introductory lunch, “I watched the man across the table from me turn into Oscar in the most remarkable way.” By the time Good Night, Oscar received rave reviews in its Chicago tryout run, Wright realized he was collaborating with a masterful actor. “Sean is absolutely astonishing as Oscar,” he says. “This is going to enter the canon of great American performances.”

While walking the tightrope of dramatizing mental illness, addiction, and the earliest iteration of cancel culture, Good Night, Oscar manages to be unendingly entertaining. “This is the first play I’ve written that is an unabashed comedy about a hilariously funny man,” says Wright. “It has serious elements, but to stand in the back of the theatre and listen to the audience’s laughter is an aphrodisiac unlike anything I have ever experienced.” Responds Hayes, “Try being on stage and feeling that — it’s doubled!”

Summing up the appeal of the play, Wright says, “Oscar reminds us that humor is a necessary ingredient for living. We’ve been through a tumultuous couple of years, not only in the theater community but the entire country, and there is something cathartic when 1,000 people can come together in a darkened room and burst into spontaneous laughter again and again. It’s healing.” To cap off their collaboration by opening Good Night, Oscar at the Belasco Theatre is doubly thrilling. Says Hayes, “It’s a great milestone in any actor’s career to bring a piece to Broadway. I don’t take it for granted, and I feel honored and lucky to be doing this.”

Photo: Ben Rappaport and Sean Hayes, by Liz Lauren.

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