Harvey Review: Jim Parsons vs. Jimmy Stewart
What many theatergoers know and don’t love about “Harvey” is that this comedy about a 6’3 1/2” invisible rabbit won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945, beating out Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” What people love about it is Jimmy Stewart, who starred in it both on Broadway and in Hollywood.
A revival of Mary Chase’s play therefore has to overcome both resentment and perfection. As central character Elwood P. Dowd himself might say, it is easy to take a liking to the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of “Harvey” at Studio 54, thanks to Scott Ellis’ well-paced direction and a splendid 11-member cast headed by Jim Parsons, the star of the TV series “The Big Bang Theory,” and full of audience favorites such as Carol Kane and Jessica Hecht and one of the actors from “Mad Men.”
Parsons plays Elwood, an old-fashioned gentleman, generous, easy-going and polite to a fault. His sister Veta certainly feels this fault severely, especially when it comes to Harvey. Harvey is a “Pooka,” which is helpfully defined in the play as “a fairy spirit in animal form….A wise but mischievous creature.” This Pooka takes the form of a tall rabbit who is invisible to the audience, but not to Elwood.
Harvey’s existence is distressing to Veta (Jessica Hecht) and to her daughter Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo) who live with Elwood, a bachelor who inherited his mother’s estate, including her house. He spends his day drinking at Charlie’s bar with Harvey. Veta and Myrtle Mae spend their day conspiring to get rid of Elwood, because his eccentricity jeopardizes Myrtle Mae’s chances of ever finding a husband, despite her beauty.
So they ask to have him committed to the local sanitarium. As in any comedy, it does not go as planned.
Half the play takes place in the rich dark-wood library of the Dowd home, half in the sterile white offices of the sanitarium, both attractively designed by David Rockwell.
All in all, “Harvey” is silly and slight, but still it’s funny. Its gentle humor revolves around Elwood’s consistent courtesy in situations that would spook or outrage most people, and his casual acceptance of what others see as completely bizarre, indeed psychotic. Here is the explanation Elwood gives of how he first met Harvey: “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this great white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you have lived in a town as long as I have lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.”
Elwood is a Peewee Herman-like character (created decades before Peewee) whose very innocence makes him more knowing than he realizes. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it,” he says, one of many quotable lines. Parson’s deadpan charm goes a long way to making them work. He seems immune to any ugliness, including his own; though he is always going to or coming from a bar, he is never drunk. Everybody he encounters is somebody he wants to befriend, even a surly orderly trying to strap him down for anti-psychotic medication (played by Rich Summer, who is nearly unrecognizable as the same actor who plays Harry Crane on “Mad Men”)
Jessica Hecht, who appealed to others more than to me in the recent Broadway revivals of both Brighton Beach Memoirs and A View From The Bridge, here loses her Brooklyn accent (much to my relief), and assumes a kind of New England upper-crust diction, even though the play takes place in Denver, Colorado. This makes sense for the character, who likes to put on airs. Hecht turns out to be a good physical comedian, especially when she gets her comeuppance and is mistaken as the patient. She manages to make Veta foolish, even well-meaning, rather than evil.
There is enough in “Harvey” to make the case that it was a satire ahead of its time, anti-conformist before that became fashionable. I can’t imagine anybody nowadays putting “Harvey” on a par (much less ahead of) “The Glass Menagerie.” But what’s more interesting is what they share. They are both in very different ways about what society considers mental illness — in “Harvey” explicitly but as a joke, in “The Glass Menagerie,” hidden, and a tragedy. Laura is based on Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose, who was given a lobotomy for her schizophrenia – thought then to be a reasonable treatment — and institutionalized until she died. Elwood’s treatment is more up-to-date — “formula 977.”
“Mr. Dowd will not see this rabbit any more after this injection. We’ve used it in hundreds of psychopathic cases,” says one of his doctors (played by Morgan Spector, who was Rodolpho in the View from the Bridge revival.)
“Don’t you call my brother a psychopathic case!” Veta replies. “There’s never been anything like that in our family.”
“If you didn’t think Uncle Elwood was psychopathic,” daughter Myrtle asks, “why did you bring him out here?”
“Where else could I take him? I couldn’t take him to jail, could I?”
Both Tennessee Williams and Mary Chase were also — in very different ways — making a plea for tolerance, and kindness.
Near the end of “Harvey,” Elwood P. Dowd says: “Doctor, my mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood”—she always called me Elwood—she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
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at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
By Mary Chase
Directed by Scott Ellis; sets by David Rockwell; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Kenneth Posner; music and sound by Obadiah Eaves; hair and wig design by Tom Watson
Cast: Jim Parsons (Elwood P. Dowd), Jessica Hecht (Veta Louise Simmons), Charles Kimbrough (William R. Chumley, M.D.), Larry Bryggman (Judge Omar Gaffney), Peter Benson (E. J. Lofgren), Tracee Chimo (Myrtle Mae Simmons), Holley Fain (Ruth Kelly, R.N.), Angela Paton (Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet), Rich Sommer (Duane Wilson), Morgan Spector (Lyman Sanderson, M.D.) and Carol Kane (Betty Chumley).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
“Harvey” is scheduled to run through Aug. 5.
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