(LtoR) Jonathan Stark, Dan Castellaneta, Phil Proctor, and JD Cullum in For Piano and Harpo.
Photo by Sasha A Venola.
Dan Castellaneta, best known as the voice of Homer Simpson, is currently starring in a play he has written called For Piano and Harpo. We had the pleasure of seeing the show last week at the Falcon Theatre in Toluca Lake, California, and walked away with a greater knowledge of Harpo Marx and Oscar Levant and a curiosity into the mind of Dan Castellaneta.
For Piano and Harpo tells the story of the drug-addicted, sharp-witted, brilliantly talented concert pianist Oscar Levant and his strange road to recovery while hospitalized in the psych ward of Mt. Sinai Hospital. Woven between his attempts at group therapy, are flashbacks to his friendship with Harpo Marx, his life with wife June Gale and his difficult childhood in Pittsburgh. The play flows beautifully without interruption, jumping through time and place seamlessly with a cast of five other actors playing numerous characters in the life of Levant.
We needed to find out more about why Dan wrote this dark comedy, so we spoke with him in a one-on-one interview about discovering this story and writing the play. He recalled reading Harpo Marx’s autobiography Harpo Speaks.
He explained that the book contains a chapter about a dinner party at Harpo’s house that was interrupted by a phone call. When Harpo asked who was calling, the voice on the other end said, “It’s Oscar Levant, you musical ignoramus. How do I get to your house from here?” When Harpo told his friend that he was interrupting a dinner party, Oscar replied, “That’s okay. I’ve already eaten.” The composer shows up a while later, argues with the guests and stays for 13 months.
This sole chapter in the book inspired Dan to write a play about these diverse show biz characters. “They are almost polar opposites,” he stated. “Harpo is a very happy go lucky guy and well liked. But he, of course, made his living by being silent. Oscar Levant was known more for his wise cracks and verbal wit. So I thought it would be an interesting play.”
Rather than set the show only in Harpo’s house and make it a version of The Odd Couple, Dan instead focused on Levant’s struggle with drug addiction and mental illness. In the psych ward, Dan creates characters that parallel the people in the composer’s life — a silent roommate to parallel Harpo and others to represent his mother, his father and his wife. Through these interactions, Oscar finally discovers his own demons and begins to recover.
Clearly Dan had an affinity and interest in the Marx Brothers long before this play came to fruition. He told us the comedy team had been a big influence on him as a boy. He reflected, “To me they were a revelation… When I first saw them, I might have been 11 or 12 and they were showing the Marx Brothers' films on television. And I was like, ‘Oh my god! These guys are incredible! I’ve never seen anything like this.’”
He continued, “They had everything. They had verbal byplay and slapstick and visual gags and actually intellectual humor… Just watching them [I learned] about comedy timing and even how to justify a gag. Even though they were kind of absurd they had to be grounded in reality with Margaret Dumont and the people around them in order for them to really be funny.”
And while Groucho is clearly the more prominent, and perhaps, wider known Marx Brother in pop culture, Dan’s respect for Harpo grew during the creation of this play. “Groucho lived longer than [his brothers] did and, because he did very well in television, he definitely overshadowed them. I got a greater appreciation of Harpo after reading his book and even doing this play. Just doing some of his gags gave me a greater appreciation of how much thought and time and practice he actually put into these crazy gags.”
Dan hopes people will walk away from For Piano and Harpo with a better understanding of drug addiction and mental illness and, more universally, to realize the importance of communicating with the people around you. “His idea of reaching out to other people, reaching out to friends, maybe even strangers, for help. You can’t always do everything on your own. People do need help. That’s where his road to recovery, or at least to him getting himself out of these mental institutions, started, when he started reaching out to others. Not only reaching out for help but also helping others.”
For Piano and Harpo continues through March 5 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside, Burbank, CA 91505. Performances are Wednesday through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are priced from $30-$45 and can be purchased online at www.falcontheatre.com or by calling the Box Office at 818-955-8101.