Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar and Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in Good Night, Oscar at the Goodman Theatre Credit: Liz Lauren

In his 1940 memoir, A Smattering of Ignorance, composer-raconteur-pharmaceuticals enthusiast Oscar Levant recalls a train journey he took with his idol, George Gershwin. After offering the talkative Gershwin a sleeping pill (“with the air of a man offering a friend an after-dinner mint”), Levant was mildly surprised that Gershwin commandeered the more comfortable lower berth in the sleeping car that Levant had planned on using himself. As Levant tried in vain to settle in for the night in the rickety bunk above, Gershwin opened one eye, looked up at him, and murmured sleepily, “Upper berth, lower berth. That’s the difference between talent and genius.”

Good Night, Oscar
Through 4/24: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 3/27 and Tue 4/5, 7:30 PM; Thu 3/24 and 4/21, 7:30 PM only; Sat 4/9, 2 PM, audio description with touch tour at 12:30 PM (no access to the stage, but “alternate pre-show sensory introductions” available); Fri 4/15 performance ASL interpreted; Sat 4/16, 2 PM performance open captioned; Sat 4/16, 8 PM, Spanish subtitles; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn,  312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $40-$98.

That difference haunts the Levant we meet in Doug Wright’s Good Night, Oscar, now in a world premiere at the Goodman starring Sean Hayes. It’s 1958, and Levant is due to appear on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar (the man who hosted the franchise between Steve Allen and Johnny Carson). Paar (Ben Rappaport) is already unhappy that NBC is making him do a trial run of the show from Hollywood, instead of what he (and lots of other people) view as the more urbane and sophisticated world of New York. NBC president Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) is worried that the notoriously loose-cannon Levant will either not show up at all—or will, but loaded with not-ready-for-not-primetime one-liners. When Levant’s wife June (Emily Bergl) comes in and lets Paar know that Oscar will be arriving at the studio straight from a locked ward (she’s wrangled a four-hour pass), it’s obvious that things could go off the rails badly at any moment.

In some ways, Good Night, Oscar shares narrative DNA with the 1982 film (and later musical) My Favorite Year, in which a live TV variety show (modeled on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows) brings in Peter O’Toole’s alcoholic fading matinee idol as a guest. There’s even a worshipful young production assistant on hand in the form of Max Weinbaum (Ethan Slater), Sarnoff’s nephew brimming over with enthusiasm for (and impressions of) Levant. (The unseen Jayne Mansfield is the other guest on the docket for the evening.) The same surface dramatic tension—will the show go on?—drives the plot in both stories. (Spoiler alert: Levant does make it on set, and the script draws upon actual one-liners Levant dropped on the Paar show. But without giving anything away, suffice it to say that he delivers far more than laugh lines.)

Like My Favorite Year, the best moments in Wright’s play (directed by Lisa Peterson) are those that make us confront our own complicity in enjoying the spectacle of a man whose antics amuse even as they reveal real pain and personal demons. Accompanied by Alvin Finney (Tramell Tillman), an orderly from Mount Sinai hospital who isn’t eager to have his own future med school plans upended by his pill-seeking celebrity charge, and literally haunted by the presence of the long-dead Gershwin (John Zdrojeski), Hayes’s Levant knows that part of the reason people like watching him is that he does bring an element of danger. And Rappaport’s Paar, who tells his boss that he wants to book “people who treat chit-chat with all the daring, all the danger of a high-wire act,” wants it both ways. He wants Oscar to walk out on the wire, but not actually endanger the show by crashing to the ground.

It’s a tough balancing act, because Levant’s stock-in-trade self-deprecation about his own mental frailty was one of his selling points, often overshadowing his undeniable musical gifts. When Max reminds Levant of the brilliant scene in 1951’s An American in Paris where he appears as all the members of an orchestra playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F, you can almost feel the self-loathing and regrets rolling off the musician like a black noxious cloud. Playing the cynical court jester and wingman (as well as being hailed as an interpreter of another man’s work, rather than as the creator of his own compositions) has paid dividends in fame and financial stability, but it’s taken part of his soul.

Hayes, best known as the narcissistic Jack McFarland from Will & Grace, removes any memories of that confident-even-without-cause character within minutes. But he’s not delivering just an impression of Levant (that’s what Max is for). Nor do his physical tics and other manifestations of mental fog (always cut through at the last minute with a biting quip) fall into the trap laid by the material of asking us to applaud his ability to turn mental illness into a punch line. Coming on the show may be good in some ways for Levant, as Bergl’s June maintains, but we’re seeing what the TV audience could not: the way that Levant must summon the persona of Irascible Oscar the Grouch through an alchemy of self-abnegation.

I’d argue that Wright, who previously tackled the conflict between genius and insanity in 1995’s Quills, about the Marquis de Sade in an asylum, could push us further into confronting that discomfort. It’s only more relevant now that reality TV and social media have numbed us in some ways to psychological disintegration from celebrities like Kanye West (and former presidents) playing out in public. (The revelation that Levant ended up in Mount Sinai because he finally started coming after his wife in the midst of a breakdown definitely feels underemphasized here.) But then again, perhaps the moments of self-conscious slickness that pop up in Peterson’s absorbing production (which comes in at around 90 minutes, sans intermission) offer their own critique. Where’s the line between entertaining provocation and a cry for help? In Good Night, Oscar, it’s nowhere near as clear as Gershwin’s upper berth/lower berth hierarchy.