Two questions I’ve carried with me from my days as an undergraduate theatre major to my current career as a theatre critic are “why now?” and “why this play?” They encourage me to think about the relevance of a specific show to the specific moment in which it’s being performed, which is essential for an art form so bound by time and space. In the case of Good Night, Oscar, written by Doug Wright and currently premiering at the Goodman Theatre, I am left without an answer to either question.
The stakes of the show are this: late-night host Jack Paar must prove that The Tonight Show can be successful if filmed in Los Angeles instead of New York. To do so, he’s invited pianist and comedian Oscar Levant as his opening guest. There’s a hitch, however, which is that Oscar is currently in an in-patient mental health facility; he is able to sneak out for four hours only by using a “pass” acquired by his wife. There’s lots of angst about Oscar’s mental illness, his relationship to George Gershwin, and the producer’s request that he avoid the topics of politics, religion, and sex while live on the air, and then the interview happens. That’s it. That’s the story.
The stakes here are not exactly life-or-death. For the right character, it might be easy to root for the show’s success in its new home, but Jack isn’t particularly vividly drawn, and instead actor Ben Rappaport is left throwing plenty of charisma at a cardboard character it’s hard to care about. Indeed, it’s difficult to care much about any of the characters, from the one-dimensional producer Bob to the irritatingly enthusiastic assistant Max. Oscar himself is somewhat sympathetic, but that owes more to Sean Hayes’ powerful performance than anything to be found in the script. Overall, the script is lackluster, and it’s difficult to enjoy anything else, even the committed boldness of Hayes’ acting, when it all hangs on something so uninspired.
There is plenty of potential material to mine here—Oscar’s fear that he will always be stuck in Gershwin’s shadow, his mental illness, his wife’s struggle to care for him, the intersection of exploitation and entertainment—but none of those themes really blooms into anything full and meaningful. Instead, the play’s ending seems to suggest that the real takeaway here is something about what television ought to be, which is by far the least interesting element of the story. Perhaps if this script were used for prestige television instead of a live play, the reflection on the nature of televised entertainment would be more resonant. Much of the humor relies on an understanding of pop culture references from the 1950s, which went straight over my millennial head, rendering a play about a comedian much less funny than it should have been by rights.
Ultimately, I’m just not sure why this play needed to be produced now. If I were born fifty years earlier, maybe I would have at least found it entertaining or nostalgic, but at twenty-eight, in a world ravaged by climate change, war, disease, economic inequality, racial injustice, and countless other massive looming problems, it’s hard to imagine what Oscar Levant’s appearance on The Tonight Show in 1958 has to do with me or anyone else in current society. Despite the incredible talent at the show’s center, this one is a miss.
Dates: March 12 – April 24, 2022
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60601
Tickets: $25 – $112, subject to change. Available now at the Goodman Theatre’s website or by phone at 312.443.3800.
All photos by Liz Lauren.