Oscar Levant was a concert pianist and actor in the 1930s through the 1950s, famous for his witty banter and comic timing.
So when director Stefan Novinski was pitched the idea of a play about Levant that involved the Marx Brothers, cast with comedians and improvisational artists, he thought it would be "wild, slapstick, wry" with physical comedy.
However, Novinski learned that the play was more than that. It's a dark comedy about Levant and his struggles with drugs and mental-health issues.
"For Piano and Harpo," written by actor Dan Castellaneta — best known for voicing the role of Homer Simpson on "The Simpsons" — is being presented at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank through March 5.
The idea for the play came after Castellaneta read a biography about comedian Harpo Marx and was drawn to a story about Levant staying at Marx's home for about a year, Novinski said.
"Dan was fascinated about this idea about Harpo Marx, who for all his crazy comedy, was a really well-adjusted great guy, and then here's Oscar Levant who, given the opportunity, will self-sabotage a situation," Novinski said. "So why are these two guys hanging out together? What's the nature of that relationship? That thought began to snowball for Dan."
Novinski attributes Castellaneta's time as a member of the comedy troupe Second City for his ability to tell a story about a person's battle with their demons in a humorous way.
"Second City has always been based on the human truth and human honesty, and that's how [Castellaneta] approached all these scenes," Novinski said.
Novinski commended Castellaneta, who plays Oscar Levant in the show, for wanting to bring up the topic of mental health and what it was like for someone during the 1950s to deal with the issue.
"This is the '50s, where you don't talk about emotions," Novinski said. "Oscar Levant wants to talk about his drug addiction and his depression."
Though the play has only been performed a handful of times, Novinski said audiences have been moved by Castellaneta's work.
"We are really having fun exploring the tone of the play," Novinski said. "During our first play, we had laughs, but we also had those really great silences that you get when you see a Tennessee Williams play or a [Eugene] O'Neill play."
To purchase tickets to "Of Piano and Harpo," visit falcontheatre.com.
Anthony Clark Carpio, firstname.lastname@example.org