For Piano and Harpo
Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was both certifiable as a performing genius and as a nutcase. And apparently he was comfortable being both -- so why shouldn't we want to see him on stage doing both? "There's a fine line between genius and insanity," wrote Levant. "I have erased this line."
In addition, he was friends with Arthur "Harpo" Marx (1888-1964), one of the famous and infamous Four Marx Bros. Thus, when actor Dan Castellaneta researched Levant's life, he found an odd notation that the pianist/composer/ actor went to a party one afternoon at Marx's Beverly Hills mansion, and stayed for thirteen months. This became the genesis of his comedy, "For Piano and Harpo."
Castellaneta stumbled on a terrific idea for a play, but he also stumbled on making it complete. There's no doubt that Levant, sarcastic, self-loathing, and talented as he was, makes for a great theatrical character to play. But Castellaneta, a fine voice-over actor as Homer Simpson, seems to lack enough straight-actor voice variety to make his Levant an attention-grabbing human being.
Now, mind you, the actor has an extraordinary gift for comedy and certainly, Levant's rude rhythms fit Castellaneta's abilities in this rough glove of a role. But having the play go from late in his life, while institutionalized for mental disorders, back to the 1930s Hollywood, forward to Jack Paar's nightly talk show in 1962, allows for an interesting gander at his life, but is questionable why Harpo is in it at all.
These two men might have worked better in a fictional funny-off, but in spite of some fine work by the great JD Cullum as Harpo, and some excellent actors: including Levant's very put-off wife, June (Deb Lacusta); Gail Matthius as Oscar's mother, successfully, and Fanny Brice, less so; Jonathan Stark as his pill-prescribing psychiatrist and as Jack Paar; and Phil Proctor, in a variety of vivid roles.
While Castellaneta mimes playing the classical piano, music supervisor David O plays it for real just behind the curtain, accompanied on the harp by the talented Jillian Risigari.
It's an uneven show as written, with what one suspects as far too many themes running through it, but director Stefan Novinski moves it well, guiding the veteran cast into and through their realities on Stephen Gifford's wide, detailed set. And Kate Bergh's costume design works through the many decades memorably.
It's a witty evening, superbly acted, and worthy of our attention. But it would succeed better if they choose to do a re-write after this run.
"For Piano and Harpo" runs through March 5 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive in Burbank, 91502. For tickets and information, call 818-955-8101 or visit falcontheatre.com