at the Halsted Theatre Centre

Oscar Levant once said that “imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism,” and when it comes to Levant, Stan Freeman is one of the best plagiarists around. As the star of Joel Kimmel’s one-man play At Wit’s End, under the efficient direction of Barbara Karp, he looks nothing like the late pianist, humorist, and manic-depressive; but with his pouty lip, sluggish stance, pianistic affinity for classical counterpoint and society jazz, and sardonically bored monotone, Freeman captures Levant’s soul and style to a hilarious and unsettling T.

In the days before rock ‘n’ roll and the Betty Ford Clinic made celebrity drug addiction a common topic of conversation, Levant was famous for his chemical dependence. Before Lenny Bruce blurred the line between stand-up comedy and psychodrama, Levant tested the boundaries of public taste by veering eccentrically between mordant humor and morbid obsessiveness on radio and live TV shows. And well in advance of Liberace’s brazen mixing of “serious” and pop music, Levant was championing the two genres’ equal legitimacy. To this end, he was supported by his idol and friend George Gershwin, who revolutionized American music with his classical-jazz hybrids.

Freeman’s Levant, seated at a grand piano and framed by a campy pair of potted palms, puffs on cigarettes and pops pills as he lets loose with a steady stream of once daring, still hilarious, and always self-deprecating one-liners. His topics are sex (“I prefer nymphomaniacs. I always have. They’re so grateful for small favors”), drugs (“The day I met Judy Garland for the first time may have been the greatest single moment in the history of pharmaceuticals”), booze (“These days I just keep a small supply of liquor nearby. In case I’m bitten by a snake. [Pause] Which I also keep nearby”), music (“high-class dope”), politics (“The only difference [between Democrats and Republicans] is the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt too”), and, always, his own delicate psychology. “I’m prevented from my compulsion to jump off theater balconies by my fear of mingling with strangers,” he says at one point, and you know he’s only half-kidding. Not even his musical talent offers solace; after ripping through a thundering rendition of Manuel de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” he shrugs: “Well. Wasn’t that–loud.”

As for show-biz anecdotes, the names drop like flies. There are quick one-liners–about Basil Rathbone (“Mr. Rhythm himself”), Leonard Bernstein (“He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting”), Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Elsa Maxwell, Bennett Cerf, Tallulah Bankhead, even Zsa Zsa Gabor (“the only person who seems to have left the Iron Curtain wearing it”)–as well as more detailed anecdotes about Dorothy Parker, Arturo Toscanini, George M. Cohan, Harpo Marx, John Garfield, and of course Gershwin, whose early death Freeman makes the audience comprehend as a personal tragedy and a public loss.

Freeman offers plenty of Gershwin’s music too. Here the performance is less successful: though a darkly dissonant arrangement of Gershwin’s “Swanee” offers insight into both the composer’s genius and the pianist’s deep-seated melancholy, a solo piano arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue is played sloppily and undynamically, serving only as a reminder to the listener to go home and play the record. Other selections on the program fare somewhat better–pieces by Bach and Shostakovich, and a rendition of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” that really is a minute long, as well as several tunes by Levant himself–and their proximity to Gershwin here makes for interesting listening: you really recognize how original Gershwin was, for all his borrowings, and how much better he was than his peers.

At Wit’s End is often hysterically funny, but underneath the sharp jokes and Freeman’s weirdly engrossing manner lie the insights of a rare and refined sensibility. No towering talent himself, Levant was a dedicated celebrator of those whom he loved for bringing beauty into the world. He was no fawning sycophant; it was the artists’ work that drew him to them, not their fame. His mockeries of pretentious poseurs sting because he meant them to. His praise for people of real ability is affecting because it’s unaffected; Levant wasn’t trying to win any popularity contests. Rather, in a period of enormous change, he was trying to define quality (as opposed to taste). His definition included candor, wit, and an understanding of our mortality as a gauge to appreciate the gift of life, mixed blessing though it might be.