Sunday, February 12, 2017

FOR PIANO AND HARPO by Dan Castelleneta // A World Premiere

The Falcon Theatre finds that interesting line between the happy crowd pleaser and the avant garde that makes Garry Marshall’s comfortable venue the ideal space for this Laugh Then Think World Premiere that shall be remembered. 
Dan Castellaneta, Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor, Jonathan Stark, JD McCollum and Deb Lacusta 

Photo by Sasha A. Venola

In his own play, Dan Castellaneta, well known for famous television characters who shall remain nameless, D’oh!, plays the ever troubled and troubling Oscar Levant: the frequent guest on the 1950’s The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, where we begin our journey. The play opens with the excellent Jonathan Stark as Parr. ‘On The Air’ signs flash to draw the audience into the show.  Applause!   Levant, well known for his outrageous insults and quick wit mashed up with his virtuosity as a concert pianist, didn’t have it easy.  As an addict and a neurotic with components of genius, Castelleneta’s survey of Levant’s life and friendship with fellow virtuoso, Harpo Marx, spills onto Stephen Gifford’s simple set with speed and skill thanks to the adept direction of Stefan Novinski.  We often forget that it’s the artist at the helm who brings the actors and the script and the music (musical director David O on the grand piano and harpist Jillian Risigarsi-Gai behind the upstage scrim) together.  The ensemble creates a myriad of characters with quick changes, often presenting as ghosts from Levant’s memories. It all blends well together.

In 1935, Oscar shows up at Harpo’s rented Beverly Hills mansion to crash a dinner party and stays for a year. As Harpo (also appropriately presented as Charlie, the mute, a patient at the Mount Sinai Psych Ward where Levant finds himself) JD Cullum, transitions without a hitch. From time to time Harpo and Oscar play harp and piano together, via mime with piano and harp live upstage. 

As Harpo’s Butler (and sundry others) Phil Proctor’s diversity brings his characters to life.  Traversing time and space easily, Proctor brings pathos through the psych patient, Sidney,  as well as with his brusque portrayal of Oscar’s difficult and demanding father.

Deb Lacusta limns both June Levant, Oscar’s put upon wife, as well as another psych patient, Barbara, who, interestingly, resembles June and adds to Oscar’s state of perpetual disruption in his life.

Protean Gail Matthius, stretches from Fanny Brice to the hot to trot psych ward patient, Shirley,
and then as Oscar’s mother, whom we learn may be at the root of many of Oscar’s issues. 

Leaps of time and space sometimes work and sometimes don’t in theatre and in film.  The easy transitions from 1962 to 1956 to 1935 in and out worked for me with Castellaneta best as the robust and acerbic pal of Harpo in the early years.  With no self censor, Levant was acknowledged as an amazing concert pianist and somehow tolerated as a drugged out nutcase rambling to a somewhat early death at the age of sixty-five.

Partnered with Laugh Then Think, the tradition of Garry Marshall’s pet project, The Falcon Theatre, will not disappoint.  Highly recommended but only for those who are active in the Laughing and Thinking Departments.

by Dan Castellaneta
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, California 91505
Through March 5, 2017
Tickets and Information
www  .
818 955 8101