THE WILL OF GRACE – May 6, 2023
First of all, The Belasco is stunning, an homage to the days when people dressed up to go to the theater, when an orchestra seat to a Broadway show was a dollar, which was expensive when you consider that in those days a struggling actor like me could get a three course meal at the Automat for a few nickels.
I must confess, there have been times when I’ve worn jeans to the theatre, but always a sport coat. Yesterday, for some strange reason, I wore slacks. A collared shirt too. And a trench coat. I thought it was going to rain. I didn’t check my weather app. Luddite.
I looked out of place standing in line at TKTS. A guy walking up and down the line holding three finely rolled reefers for sale said, “Nice coat, Columbo.” We made quick eye contact and shared a chuckle as he passed.
It was a special occasion, Caryn and I were celebrating yet another week of mini performances for the good folks who rent expensive rehearsal rooms to hear actors sing someone else’s songs, or speak someone else’s words, or do both…In less than two and a half minutes.
The Times Square of 2023 is sort of like— if George Bailey jumped off that bridge and Old Man Potter invented Disneyland. Potterland. And so it’s paradoxically ironic that these spectacular Broadway theaters of the past should sit amid the miasma of pot smoke, and a trio of Mini Mouses fighting over that one little Dorthy from Kansas, the same one crying to her parents afterwards that, “All of these comic book and cartoon characters should be fucking fired for taking off their masks and showing their faces!” You have to look really close to see the charm in a six-year old who has memorized the Disneyland Show Operations Handbook. Not to mention possessing the vernacular of a forty-year old from the Bronx.
Yesterday, it was between, ‘Summer of 1976’, starring Laura Linney, and my acting teacher, Jessica Hecht; ‘Prima Facie’, a solo performance piece about the injustices of the UK criminal justice system; and, ‘Good Night Oscar’, starring Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant. I’ll make a second confession, I didn’t really want to see the latter. I’d never seen a single episode of ‘Will & Grace’ and was being really judgmental about a TV actor starring on Broadway. What can I say, I’m a cliche.
When the TKTS crew member in the derby hat, the one who walks up and down the line hawking fliers to the Broadway musical, Chicago, stopped to ask me what I was thinking about seeing, and I told them, they seemed shocked. And then they said, “Oh, wow, all plays. We don’t get many “play people” here. We like play people…but to be honest, I haven’t seen any of the plays you are thinking about seeing. Sorry.” And then, with superb jazz hands, they went on down the line handing out leaflets .
When I got closer to the TKTS booth, Caryn texted and said she was done with her audition. She said she did well and got a, “Thank you so much for coming in.” I texted back, “You’re kidding! That’s awesome! Well done! Contract is on the way!” And then I sent a bunch of heart emojis. And she sent a bunch of laughing emojis. And a good time was had by all emojis.
Not being as skilled at texting as Caryn, I called her. On the phone. And talked to her. With my voice. I said I was almost to the front of the line so she should join me because I was having problems making a decision between the three plays we discussed, and if she didn’t come and help me decide I was just going to get tickets to Aladdin. The next thing I knew she was standing next to me in line. Still on her phone, she said, “Good Night, Oscar.”
When we got up to the window of the TKTS Booth I asked for two tickets to Good Night, Oscar. The box office person said, “How’s center orchestra Row G?”
And I said, “G is great.”
“Two hundred dollars, please.”
I knew of Oscar Levant. Who could forget his indelible performance as Gene Kelly’s sidekick in the MGM classic, ‘An American in Paris’?
I’d heard about the days of Jack Parr and the Tonight Show, but have never seen the video of the Levant and Parr episode, which the play by the brilliant Doug Wright, is loosely based. I’m told they’re on YouTube.
I am old enough, however, to remember Jack Parr’s successor, Johnny Carson. Or maybe there was someone else who came between Jack and Johnny, I’m not using Wikipedia as I write this, I’m just using my heart, which has been in the theatre, along with my body, for many, many years.
And in those years I’ve seen and done my fair share of obsessing about my role in the theatre. And it’s rare to see a performance that makes you feel that maybe somebody up there on that Broadway stage has been obsessing about their role in the theatre, too, which I have lately hoped to see more of while sitting in the gorgeous palaces of art worshiping the gods of comedy and tragedy. My gods. I’ve often said to my gods, Please show me something that will keep me inspired.
In our technologically advanced Time Square of giant screens flashing Coca Cola signs, Zombie video games, and images of crumbling banks asking us to apply for a Visa card, it’s hard to get inspired.
Sure, each time I see a Broadway show I feel the heart of the performers. I feel how grateful they are to be up there getting their shot on Broadway. But it’s really tough to be transported away from the shock of the Times Square of today.
The theatre has its share of technology enhancing a weak book or blasé performance, don’t get me wrong. Productions adding AI value to the human element, which is its own existential crisis in the making, which is also what the theatre should be there to represent— what it means to be a human being living amid the evil of today, as well as yesterday.
And those who stand on stages telling stories of the past, present and future, should be, in and of themselves, telling us their story. Of years of study. Of obsessing over the color blue. Of hitting every note and feeling somehow they still haven’t done justice to the genius of say, George Gershwin. Of hearing voices in their heads telling them that they aren’t good enough to be standing on that stage, or in that audition line, because they haven’t struggled enough, they haven’t studied enough, they haven’t taken enough class, seen enough art, experienced enough life— so they should just stop right now and tell the world that they are an imposter. And then check themselves into a sanatorium for the artistically insane. Or go work for Netflix.
I saw all of that last night in Mr. Wright’s play. And I saw it through the lens of one man, Sean Hayes.
Mr. Hayes reassured me that there has to be talent on a stage before there’s anything else. Talent which cannot be reached. Talent which cannot be taught. Talent which cannot be shared on Instagram. And Mr. Hayes not only brought his heart and soul to this heartbreaking tale of those who obsess about the art in themselves, but he also brought me to tears throughout his all too brief 75-minutes on the stage of this ninety minute play, which started slowly until the ghost of Oscar Levant made his obsessively compulsive entrance by physically entering Mr. Hayes’ body and contorting it to show the psychological effects of a lifetime of heartbreak, and abuse, and self-doubt— Oscar Levant by way of Sean Hayes proceeded to bring the ghosts of the Belasco back into the wings of their precious theater, to witness something take place at the end of the final act. Something on an instrument made of wood and built by artisan hands in Queens. Something miraculous. Which brought the audience to their feet before the bows.
So, when you come to New York to see Sean Hayes dazzle you with show stopping talent— which you should — don’t leave until he makes his entrance, which I must again confess, I wanted to do. In other words, wait for your world to change back to the days of electroshock therapy, of smoking cigarettes while on TV Talk Shows, of misunderstood geniuses having no place else to go but insane. And wear something smart.