Comedian, composer, pianist, actor, raconteur, best-selling author, quiz-show guest and talk-show host—Oscar Levant was all of these and more, and thanks to writer-star Dan Castellaneta, the largely forgotten 20th-century icon returns to self-deprecating, neurotic, pill-addicted, acerbic life in Castellaneta’s entertaining, elucidating bio-dramedy For Piano And Harpo, a Falcon Theatre World Premiere.
A 1962 appearance on late night TV’s Jack “I Kid You Not” Paar show bookends Oscar’s recollections of a forced 1956 confinement in the Mount Sinai psych ward and an extended mid-1930s stay in silent Marx Brother Harpo’s rented Hollywood mansion.
1960s nostalgia (“The Jack Paar show is brought to you by Newport Cigarettes: Newport refreshes while you smoke.”) and Levant quips (“I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”) are but a prelude to Paar’s big announcement: Oscar Levant will be playing the piano on nationwide TV for the first time in years.
Unfortunately for audiences across the land, a jittery-fingered Oscar freezes before tickling even a single ivory.
Fortunately for Falcon audiences, Oscar’s attack of nerves brings back memories of composers George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg, poet Dorothy Parker, and comedienne Fanny Brice, and recollections of Oscar’s Mount Sinai therapy group, whose members may not be household names but prove every bit as quirky as his Hollywood chums.
There’s Charlie, who like the character Harpo played on stage and screen speaks not a word; self-proclaimed exhibitionist Shirley, who can’t seem to keep her blouse buttoned, prompting Oscar’s dismissive “The only way that I would find you fetching is if I threw a stick and you retrieved it”; and wise-cracking Barbara, who reminds him of his actress-turned-wife June.
Not surprisingly, minus Demerol, Secenol, Nembutal, Sodium Amytal, Dexaprine, Thorazine, Phenobarbital, or any of his prescription drugs of choice, the psych ward is the last place Oscar would like to be, but there he is for a law-mandated 72-hour stay. (“Every time I win an argument with my wife, she has me committed,” he gripes.)
At the very least, Oscar’s taciturn roommate Charlie offers the unwilling hospital guest a willing ear. (“You remind me of George Gershwin. He and I were tight, like a size-four cocktail dress on Kate Smith.”)
For Piano And Harpo has Oscar recalling a Russian-Jewish father who encouraged his son’s musical talent, a wife who knew each of her husband’s drugs like the back of her hand, and an appearance on radio’s “Information Please” during which he revealed his multitude of fears—the number 13, roses, lemons, Pittsburgh, performing in public, and death, to name a few—before Act One climaxes with the revelation of just why June has had her husband committed.
Playwright Castellaneta’s surreal approach proves a perfect fit for a man whose multiple shock treatments may have left as many holes in his memory as there are in Swiss cheese, a concept enhanced by Stefan Novinski’s shrewd direction, live instrumental underscoring by music supervisor David O on piano and Jillian Risigari-Gai on harp, and Jean-Yves Tessier’s constantly metamorphosing lighting design, sound designer Drew Dalzell’s multiple effects aiding in visualizing mimed props on scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s appropriately mimimalist radio studio-recalling set, enhanced by Mallory Birkrem’s just-right props, with Kate Bergh’s period-perfect costumes completing a Grade-A production design mix.
Castellaneta anchors For Piano And Harpo with as multifaceted a star turn as you’ll see all year, and his supporting cast (JD Cullum, Deb Lacusta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, and Jonathan Stark) shine brightly in more roles than I could count, with special snaps to Cullum’s unexpectedly chatty Harpo and heartbreakingly silent Charlie.
Leia Crawford is stage manager. Lee Costello is production supervisor. Jonathan Arkin, Jeff Blumberg, and Heather L. Tyler are understudies.
For audience members in their retirement years, For Piano And Harpo is sure to bring back memories of a man whose neuroses were nearly as famous as his film and TV work. As for those for whom the name Oscar Levant rings no bells, For Piano And Harpo does a bang-up job of filling that gap.
Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.
February 16, 2017
Photos: Sasha Venola