Scott Klavan: Nostalgia


July-August, 2023

Theatre Reviews by Scott Klavan

Days of Wine and Roses, Off-Broadway

Goodnight, Oscar, Broadway


After attending two New York theater shows this summer, your reviewer was beset by nostalgia. Usually, I look at nostalgia, a yearning for the past, as being retrograde and useless, soft, or just inert and sad; I try to squelch it. But after the plays Days of Wine and Roses presented at the Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway, and Goodnight, Oscar, on Broadway, I couldn’t help but give in to it. This is not your problem, of course, reader. But maybe the question and an attempt at an answer, will have resonance: what was I nostalgic about or for?

The two shows have surface similarities. Both Days of Wine and Roses and Goodnight, Oscar were originally created and/or take place in roughly the same time period, 1958- 1962, right before the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the ensuing despair and upheaval that changed many aspects of culture, politics, and inter-personal behavior in the U.S. Both have roots in show business: Days… is a theatrical adaptation of a famed TV play and later, big-screen film, and, if nothing else, whose Academy Award winning theme song by Henry Mancini was a lush mournfully romantic staple of radio playlists for years afterwards. …Oscar is a portrayal of a now-obscure, once-celebrated, troubled TV/movie/music performer and personality. Both pieces have relation to the days of live TV: Days in the history of the project itself, Oscar in its storyline. But there are deeper unintended connections between the plays that leave their mark.

As mentioned, Days of Wine and Roses was first produced on TV, performed live with taped elements, on Playhouse 90 in 1958, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie as Joe and Kirsten, a bright accomplished urban young couple who fall into alcoholism. It was made into a film in 1962, with Blake Edwards directing Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in the leads. Both versions were written by JP Miller, and both were celebrated and considered provocative and groundbreaking for their time. The recent Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company show starred the admired veterans Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James, directed by Michael Greif, with a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. I saw it in its limited run from May to July 2023 at The Atlantic, one of the only mainstream theaters on Manhattan’s downtown westside Chelsea neighborhood, in what is likely an “audition” for a later Broadway production.

O’Hara’s classic leading woman looks play well here, as she takes risks soiling her perfect image during Kirsten’s downfall. Her pristine soprano voice doesn’t fit great whenever Guettel employs a ‘50s-style scat, but her gigantic skill and deep artistic discipline continues her career as the best, most beloved contemporary female star of the American musical. [D]’Arcy James uses his affable Everyman aspect to fine effect and in the latter section of the show he eclipses it, showing profound strength and emotion. The small supporting cast, including Byron Jennings and David Jennings (they have the same last name) as Joe’s AA sponsor, is clear, forthright, and good.

The play is a series of relatively short scenes and songs, with numerous sets brought in by actors or rolled or slid in by the staging machinery at the Atlantic. The lead couple meets at a ‘50s NYC work party arranged by sharp PR man Joe; acting as a kind of pimp for his boss, he is intrigued by the beautiful honorable clean-living Kirsten, a recent arrival in NYC, working at the same office, and she is taken with the brash Korean War veteran. Soon, they are having an affair and hard-drinking Joe has indoctrinated the sober Kirsten into his partying way of life. They marry, have a daughter, but Joe’s behavior causes his career to falter and the pressures of motherhood drives Kirsten down deeper into the bottle. The couple tries to sober up at the house of Kirsten’s stern, loving father (Byron Jennings). But after a brief revival, the husband and wife fracture. Joe ultimately joins AA; Kirsten, trying hard to quit, falls into degradation, and escape. 

With the near-constant scene shifts growing burdensome, the show is unable to successfully adapt the structure of a film onto the stage, although this might be helped if and when it moves to a larger Broadway house. But the performances are undauntedly strong and the interplay gritty and sincere; the play ends up wrenching, intelligent, moving, and admirably hard-bitten. Guettel’s determinedly atonal score plays against conventional rousing theater musicality, and the anti-Mancini style is challenging, striking and affecting. While it’s virtually impossible to walk out humming anything, the centerpiece song, “Forgiveness”, a mixture of pleading, pride, courage, and desperation sung at different times by both O’Hara and d’Arcy James, is memorable, hard to shake. The 90 min. one act Days of Wine and Roses is a highlight, albeit short-lived for now, of the theater year.  

Goodnight, Oscar, starring Sean Hayes as wit and musician Oscar Levant, was originally written by David Adjmi. But Adjmi’s version was rejected by Hayes in what became an awkward public conflict between the two, and the writer was replaced by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife). The show is directed by Lisa Peterson, and playing at Broadway’s venerable Belasco Theater until Aug. 27. It recounts how Levant, a notoriously unpredictable, emotionally and mentally unbalanced piano master and raconteur, made one of his regular appearances on Jack Paar’s live talk show in 1958, during its first telecast in LA after years in NYC. Levant, on heavy meds, tormented by his youth as a protegee and envious rival of George Gershwin, is given a leave from a mental hospital to do the Paar show. His erratic behavior is temporarily stabilized by long-suffering wife June (Emily Bergl), but his off-color on-air remarks, egged on by Paar, appall network head Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz). Finally, Levant’s impassioned performing of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the show renews everyone’s belief in his tortured brilliance.

Unlike Days…, Goodnight, Oscar, tells its story in a consistently predictable, old-school way, with exposition baldly stated, characters making broad, even overdone entrances and exits, and Hayes showcasing Levant’s drug-addled vocal and physical mannerisms, in a star turn. However, soon, the audience accepts and relaxes into the traditionalism and the play becomes better than a pot-boiler. Scenes between Levant and June evince a palpable depth of feeling, there are some genuinely funny lines and actions, Grosz as Sarnoff and Ben Rappaport as Paar give dynamic, believably “period” performances, and Hayes himself, who won a Tony Award for his work, has so much talent, guts and showmanship, that any artificiality is sloughed off. His own playing of Rhapsody in Blue near the end, is, again, calculated, but it’s also rousing and inspiring. Despite the sure fact that most of the audience during this run either has forgotten or never knew Levant (I remember as a kid watching him on TV in one of the movies he appeared in as a musical side-kick, including An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, and bewilderedly thinking: Who is this terrible actor and why is he in this film?) Goodnight, Oscar has been a hit. For what it’s worth, and it’s worth something, it’s been a long time since the reviewer has felt an audience react with such homey warmth and joyful affection at a non-musical Broadway play.

These two pieces produce nostalgic yearnings not only for their subject matter–while I was either a newborn or toddler during the periods depicted here, they formed the background to my upbringing, in a show business family–but for shared qualities that are becoming hard to find in today’s theater and overall culture. Both contain a man and a woman who love each other, sacrifice and fight for each other; there’s no contemporary criticism of or attack on heterosexuality, but respect for it. Perhaps due to the original creators’ and lead characters’ experience of World War II and its aftermath, the plays are concerned with suffering, in fact, suffering is the central plot peg of the shows; the characters may deny their pain through drink and drugs, but the plays do not, the opposite of the common thread in much of today’s work, bromides and political platitudes that produce the “empowerment” that supposedly brushes pain away; the major players have an innocence, but not a superficiality, a humility, but not a self-indulgent sense of victimization; a sea change from today’s culture, which often seems to be a thousand different ways of getting a supportive “No” to the question: “Do these pants make my ass look fat?” 

Both Days of Wine and Roses and Goodnight, Oscar do portray social issues that are still relevant: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness. But they show them in their complexity and frustrating incompleteness. There is an honest attempt to seek the heart of the characters’ inner lives, their flawed humanity, amid a mature understanding that there are no easy answers, no Answers at all, really, that you as a person will never “solve it”, learn the Complete Truth, fully overcome your failings and life’s disappointments, that you may forgive yourself, then not, and start again; but that it’s worth the attempt, worth playing a game you can’t win. What choice do you have?

Those are some of the elements of my nostalgia, the things I miss about the past theater and culture that is present in these two plays. But to fight the hang-dog defeatism that can be part of wistfulness, think of this: yes, the stories of these plays and their original material and real-life characters reflect a time that seems more foggily long-ago with every passing day, but these two current stage shows are just that, current, now, presented this year; alive.

A reason to hope.

Finally, to show that my nostalgia is not just weepy and sentimental, that it has a basis in some verifiable factual record, if that means more to you, here are some of the new plays that opened on Broadway in the five theater seasons from 1958-1962. There were many dozens of others and this list does not include the revivals of classics, which were numerous.

  • 1958- Two For the Seesaw, The Visit, JB, A Touch of The Poet
  • 1959- A Raisin In The Sun, Fiorello!, Gypsy, Once Upon a Mattress, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Andersonville Trial, The Miracle Worker, The Sound of Music, The Tenth Man
  • 1960- A Taste of Honey, All the Way Home, An Evening With Nichols and May, Becket, Bye Bye Birdie, Camelot, Finian’s Rainbow, The Best Man, Toys In The Attic, West Side Story
  • 1961- A Man For All Seasons, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Rhinoceros, The Caretaker, The Night of the Iguana,
  • 1962- A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, Beyond The Fringe, All American, A Thousand Clowns, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf


Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. In 2023, he directed the next pilot in the series: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Sr. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. During the pandemic, Scott figured out how to direct on Zoom! Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations. 


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