CHARACTERS (appearing here)
OSCAR LEVANT, late forties to fifties
GEORGE GERSHWIN, thirties
THE NURSE, twenties
There are three primary settings for the play: the theater in which the play is performed, a private room in Mount Sinai Hospital, and the inside of
Now. And varying points in time between the 1930s and the 1970s.
This play is a ghosting. People vanish and appear as if by magic. The space should feel uncanny. Transitions should be effortless and lightning quick. Punctuation should be treated as indicators of rhythm rather than grammar.
Lights up on Oscar in pajamas and hospital slippers. He’s holding a pack of cigarettes and a lit cigarette, which he smokes over the following. He’s high—not flying, but a few feet off the ground.
OSCAR (when the applause dies down): Thank you for that very warm welcome. You’re very nice, thank you. (beat) Uh. I want to begin with a story—a marvelous . . . sort of a fable, one my father told me when I was a little boy. It was always one of my favorites, it goes like this: A young man murders his mother—it’s a happy fable. A boy . . . murders his mother and—he cuts her heart out and he presents it. To his sweetheart—this was before the invention of . . . normal gifts—and in his hurry; he stumbles. And the disembodied heart he carries in his hand cries out, “Did you hurt yourself, son?” (beat) And the moral of the story is LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING! (smokes) I feel a bit naked without an orchestra In any event.
Thank you for coming tonight, to our brilliant . . . singular and . . . truly . . . genius—night of theater—and we’re so happy to have you. Who we is I have no idea—I’m speaking in the royal we. And we . . . (sotto voce) apropos of schizophrenics—AND . . . by the way my name . . . is George Gershwin and—this is all about me No I’m Oscar Levant. (snickers to himself) I’m not Gershwin I’ve just stolen his identity. Uh. I’m Oscar Levant and you’re . . . whoever you are; I have no idea who you are.
You’re my alibi. To the murder of . . . well, I didn’t kill anyone. UHHH.
I’ve had an extremely thrilling and . . . eminent . . . uh, life. That I want to share with you in the form of a dramatic presentation. I ran the music department at RKO when I was twenty-one. And I studied . . . years later . . . with the brilliant Arnold Schoenberg. And for many years I was friends . . . close friends with George Gershwin, the greatest composer of the twentieth century, whose career was—cut short by. Tragically . . . uh. (beat) And I got very—known for playing his music I don’t play music anymore. I’m on strike. I developed a phobia of the piano and I can’t be near the piano. But I used to say I excreted Gershwin music through my pores like a drug—there are drugs you excrete that way—like paraldehyde, which I’ve—uh—taken. Uh . . . Actually I’m on it right now. I’m—did I mention that? I am. I’m in withdrawal from drugs. I’m in a hospital, I’m in Beverly Hills, except this really isn’t Beverly Hills, it’s a stage and I’m on it. And who knows how I got here, I certainly don’t.
But we’ve got sets . . . we’ve got . . . lights—we’ve got . . . long . . . tedious speeches like this one It’s marvelous—but the theater is marvelous, I always loved the theater. Which is why I’ve devised this wonderful—escape—a night out—in the theater for all you wonderful people. You see I just had a nervous breakdown. My second—and (re: audience member) he’s nodding—you had one? (to himself ) He’s nodding again. (to us) Don’t worry this will all make—progressively less sense at the evening wears on. (smokes, then he restarts) Two weeks ago I noticed my wife packing my things I said where are we going? She said where do you think we’re going? I said the mental hospital She said yes. She was frantic. She was throwing the clothes in the suitcase. I said why are you rushing? She said you have to get to Mount Sinai before eleven thirty, I said what’s at eleven thirty? She said we need to be certain there are beds available. I said June it’s like a clearance sale! (smokes) I think I’ve been having a stroke for the past ten minutes. Okay.
Well that’s our show and everyone can leave now no I’m kidding UHHH. (beat) I was actually in a play, around the corner from here—at a theater—this was a while back—the Mesozoic era—just past the invention of the wheel. (to a lady in the front row) You remember—(to us) she’s nodding yes. Anyway. I had one line—it was called Burlesque and it had Barbara Stanwyck, by the way, this was before she was famous; and I will recite . . . my one line for you presently. By the way I can’t act. It went like this (brightens): “Mazie! Great to see you! Give us a little kiss!” (puckers up for a second and then smokes) I used to do that for Ethel Barrymore, she gave me notes. She said, Oscar it’s war! I said (hysterical mania) MAZIE-GREAT-TO-SEE-YOU-GIMME-A-KISS!!
Oscar regains his balance, smokes.
But life. Is the farce we all must play—which is a quote by the brilliant—French writer Arthur Rimbaud who also. Said something to the effect of That’s enough about Rimbaud. I have a cramp. (winces) I have all these undiagnosed—ailments. I’m in a hospital by the way but I’m—planning an escape AND YOU’RE IT! (smokes) But first. I’m going to trot out my old. Pony. Uh. As in dog and pony . . . my oldest and best . . . friend. Ladies and Gentlemen: the great . . . genius composer . . . paramour and—a wonderful human being . . . mainly; and my primary source of income UHH. I’m not kidding . . . Mister George Gershwin.
Gershwin appears at a piano, dashing. The metabolism of the play speeds up like crazy.
GERSHWIN (to Oscar): It’s the end of the first act. Or no it’s midway through Act Two—why are you standing over there, you’re in another precinct! So the philandering playboy has been banished from his family to a ranch in Arizona to keep him out of trouble . . .