Entering the Broadway production of “Good Night, Oscar,” I knew nothing about playwright Doug Wright’s titular figure, Oscar Levant, but I left caring for the crotchety old man as if he were my own family. Such is the magic of “Good Night, Oscar” and, specifically, actor Sean Hayes’ virtuosic turn as the accomplished Jewish pianist and talk show personality riddled with various mental illnesses. In “Good Night, Oscar” Wright (and Hayes) lay bare all of Oscar’s ticks, neurosis and demons. And while Wright littered the vast majority of his script with mid-20th century references that render the humor of “Good Night, Oscar” inaccessible to anyone born after 1980, I did not need to comprehend every joke of his play in order to walk away warmed by it.
The most deceiving thing about “Good Night, Oscar” is how dramatically plain it is. The play opens with NBC president Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz) and then-“Tonight Show” host Jack Paar (Ben Rappaport) anxiously discussing Oscar’s appearance that night — for which he is already late. Wright assigns each man a side: Bob is unsettled by Oscar’s tardiness, unpredictability and habit of making crass jokes on air. Jack knows that’s what makes the man so irresistible. Oscar’s wife June (a stoic Emily Bergl) arrives at the studio and tempers her husband’s arrival with a warning: Oscar’s coming alright, but he will be doing so on four-hour leave from the mental institution to which she had him committed. The play’s tension hinges upon whether or not he will make a mess of things on air.