For Piano and Harpo
Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
The Falcon Theatre
Through March 5th
Oscar Levant was a Hollywood personality from a bygone age. It would be unfair to try to pigeonhole him, he was so many things over the years – a contemporary of George Gershwin, a classically trained pianist, a film actor, a published author. But the most vibrant and enduring aspect of him was his unapologetic personality.
If you go back and watch some of his television appearances, of which there were many (and if you’re a Millennial you might need to in order to learn who this guy was), you might be awestruck by how alive and open he was, freely talking about subjects you might think of as taboo, especially during a time where everyone wore suits on TV. You might also be impressed by his consistent and razor sharp one-liners, even as he grew older and more addled. Plagued with mental anguish and self-loathing, Levant didn’t hide any of it. In fact, it seems he could do nothing but embrace it.
Dan Castellaneta is a legendary comedian in his own right, known most famously for his work on The Simpsons as the voice of Homer and countless other characters. It is very exciting that one great comic should have inspired another. The result is For Piano and Harpo, which explores Levant and his mental struggles during three distinct periods in his life: the 1930s, when he developed a close friendship with Harpo Marx; the 1950s, during a stay at Mt. Sinai psych ward; and the 1960s, on an episode of the Jack Paar show.
Castellaneta has written a loving homage to the muse of Oscar Levant, and a complex one at that, weaving in and out of timelines and with actors morphing from one character to another. He has attempted to showcase some of Levant’s legendary wit, and it’s nice to hear classic one-liners that pass the test of time.
Sadly, a few things work against this beautiful attempt. Some of these could be fixed with fair ease — gags that don’t quite land, costume choices, distracting props, etc. More problematic and prevalent are the discordant sensibilities from three sources: director Stefan Novinski, who seems determined to strip away most of the piece’s humanity; Jean-Yves Tessier’s gorgeous and melancholy lighting design; and Castellaneta’s faithfully vintage script, which requires some design and direction to back up the comedic timing and general sensibilities. The result is that the content doesn’t quite gel. Which is a shame, because much of the humor is quite sharp, and the themes should be affecting.
In terms of the portrayal of Levant himself, Castellaneta sadly falls flat despite a clear reservoir of talent. Was it that Novinski was afraid to give Castellaneta strong direction? I can’t know, but in the end the performance was rigid, committed neither to the embodiment of Levant’s physicality and delivery, nor to the emotional vulnerability the character as written requires.
In fact, Levant is often quite unlikeable here. While of course that’s not entirely unintentional, it is only through JD Cullum’s dual performance as Harpo Marx and the mute asylum patient Charlie that we really feel a true human element of the piece. And Levant’s final redemption feels unearned and sentimental.
Considering the challenge inherent in the material, and the clear passion for the subject matter, I would have loved to see this piece achieve more cohesion and take more risk.
A Laugh Then Think Production at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank 91505. Performances Wed.-Sat. 8p.m.; Sun. 4p.m. www.falcontheatre.com or (818) 955-8101. Running time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.