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Oscar Levant Vents: Bipolar Bioplay & Word Play

Ed Rampell: In a very sensitive yet often droll way Piano sets out to explore what made Oscar’s inner mental metronome tick.
For Piano and Harpo

Jonathan Stark, Dan Castellaneta, Phil Proctor, and JD Cullum (Photos: Sasha A Venola)

FOR PIANO AND HARPO Theater Review

Dan Castellaneta may be best known to audiences for giving voice to Homer and other characters on the beloved animated TV series The Simpsons since 1989, but the fact is that this four time Prime Time Emmy Award winner is also a gifted playwright and stage actor. Castellaneta stars in the two-act dramedy For Piano and Harpo, a bioplay about bipolar pianist, composer, actor and game show celebrity contestant Oscar Levant.

For Piano and Harpo

Jonathan Stark, Dan Castellaneta, and Deb Lacusta

An Orthodox Jew from a Russian immigrant family, Levant went from Pittsburgh to appearing on the big screen in 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue and 1951’s An American in Paris and habitué of swanky joints, hobnobbing with notables such as George Gershwin, who is played here by Jonathan Stark (who has multiple roles, including as Jack Paar, whose talk show Levant was a guest of).

As a radio/TV personality, Levant was always prepared to hurl a bon mot, quip or tickle the ivories, but beneath the bon vivant’s wisecracking façade, as Piano poignantly reveals, was a deeply troubled man who suffered from substance abuse and was periodically institutionalized in psych wards. His fellow inmates, including nympho Shirley (Gail Matthius), manic depressive Sidney (Phil Proctor of the renowned Firesign Theatre) and silent Charlie (played by JD Cullum, who is also cleverly cast as Harpo Marx, one of the stage and screen’s most famous mimes), are a colorful cast of character reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In a very sensitive yet often droll way Piano sets out to explore what made Oscar’s inner mental metronome tick. In doing so, with the sole exception of Castellaneta, the other five onstage cast members pplay multiple parts. In terms of both time and space, the scenes shift in filmic, fluid ways, so this may sometimes confuse more conventional theatergoers accustomed to classical Aristotelian unities of time and space. In regards to form, Piano is more cinematic than it is theatrical.

Given Levant’s addiction, stints at mental institutions and so on, Levant’s eponymous pal, Harpo (JD Cullum, who has scored Garland and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards and appeared onscreen in productions such as TV’s Mad Men) provides much needed levity in counterpoint to Levant’s woes. Cullum plays Harpo in and out of his Marx Brothers costume, and it’s a relief that the comic’s playful persona did not seem to mask inner demons. Unlike Levant, who was raised by verbally and physically abusive parents (the all too obvious source of psychological misery - paging Dr. Freud!).

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For Piano and Harpo

Deb Lacusta and Dan Castellaneta

The action onstage is accompanied by live music provided behind the stage by pianist David O and harpist Jillian Risigari-Gai, which greatly enhances the story, especially when Levant and Harpo use pantomime to “play” their instruments. In what may be an extremely clever and insightful move suggesting Levant’s inner state, O seemed to strike the wrong note at times, indicating Oscar’s off-key mentality.

For Piano and Harpo

Phil Proctor, Dan Castellaneta, Gail Matthius, and Jonathan Stark

Like Next to Normal and Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as the famed 1948 movie The Snake Pit, For Piano and Harpo is a brave production about mental illness that is dramatized and treated in a respectful and frequently funny way, as one man struggles to overcome his overpowering angst, aided by his wife June (Deb Lacusta, who also plays fellow inmate Barbara), Harpo, etc. The live music enlivens a show that is not for more timid ticket buyers, who may be put off by the subject matter and what may be a perplexing style suggesting mental disorder, as in Marat/Sade, in order to approach this delicate subject matter. But this reviewer applauds it and thoroughly enjoyed the well-acted play with its ensemble acting, adroitly directed by Stefan Novinski. And you don’t have to be a Marxist to love Harpo Marx!

For Piano and Harpo is being performed Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 4:00 p.m. through March 5 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank, CA 91505. For more info: (818)955-8101; www.FalconTheatre.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based critic and film historian Ed Rampell is the presenter and programmer of “10 Films That Shook the World”, a cinematic centennial celebration of the Russian Revolution, premiering 7:00 p.m., Feb. 24 at the Los Angeles Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).