Theater is often praised for its ability to portray real people in real situations. Good performances are generally regarded as ones that are honest and authentic. However, I am happy to report that there is one person on Broadway right now that does not at all resemble a real person. Elwood P. Dowd, as performed by the formidable Jim Parsons in the revival of Harvey currently in performances at Studio 54, is the least normal person I have come across onstage in long time. And that is precisely the charm that serves as the backbone of this charming and entertaining, but also bittersweet production.
Harvey, written by Mary Chase and first performed in 1944, was a success on Broadway and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize over Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a selection that still rankles many a dramaturg. Chase’s script tells the story of Elwood P. Dowd, an affable eccentric whose best friend is Harvey, a pooka in the form of a 6 foot, 3 ½ inch tall white rabbit. While Elwood is an apparently harmless man, his oddities prevent his sister, Veta, and niece, Myrtle Mae, from a respectable social life, and they repel any potential suitors that might be interested in Myrtle Mae. The decision of whether Elwood’s family should institutionalize him for his apparent hallucinations inspires questions about mental health and social normalcy, framed by a comedy of errors and a little romance as well.
Directed by Scott Ellis, this production of Harvey is a smooth fusion of comedy and philosophy, and much of that rests on the slight shoulders of Parsons. Harvey has not been revived on Broadway in several decades, much due to the reluctance of actors to tackle the role of Elwood. Originated onstage by vaudevillian Frank Fay and immortalized on film in 1950 by Jimmy Stewart, as well as played on television by Art Carney, the part requires the ability to appear simultaneously innocent and wise, as well substantial comedic chops. Parsons, the award-winning star of the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory, possesses a youthful babyface and lilting drawl that give Elwood a plausible innocence and render his sincerity believable rather than merely amusing or even annoying, as it might be viewed by cynics of the 21st century.
Parson’s rapport with Harvey is believable; the sidelong glances and occasional pats on the arm that he gives Harvey are so natural that one starts to believe the rabbit really is there. He stops the show when, shooting a knowing look at his invisible companion, he tells a psychiatrist, “Some people are blind. That is often brought to my attention.”
Parson’s chemistry is not limited to only his invisible co-star. He is clearly at ease onstage, where he worked for many years before television, and shares an easy rapport with the other members of this impressive ensemble. As Veta, Jessica Hecht gives an entertaining performance, emphasizing the woman’s passion and latent sexuality rather than portraying her as an aged matron, as she was played in the movie. She delivers Veta’s lines with a self-conscious European tinge in her voice, which is annoying at times, but is more amusing when considering her desperation to be viewed as upper-class society. Hecht, who I have seen shine in dramatic plays, displays solid comedic talent in this role, especially when, bordering on the edge of hysteria, she admits she herself has seen Harvey around the house. It’s easy to understand why the staff at the sanitarium mistake her as the patient rather than Elwood.
Tracee Chimo plays Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae, whose chief – and apparently sole – concern is finding a boyfriend. She has less sympathy for her Uncle Elwood than her mother does, and at times I found her character’s narcissism to be annoying. Chimo is a charming performer in the moments where she is permitted to be, and her flirtation with a sanitorium attendant (Rich Sommer, solidly entertaining) is amusing to witness.
The other women in the cast do not receive as much time onstage; Angela Paton gamely makes the most of her one scene as Elwood’s doting aunt who had never been introduced to Harvey before. Carol Kane is extremely amusing as the neglected wife of Dr. Chumley; lonely and ignored, she is extremely susceptible to Elwood’s charms. While the interactions between the two are highly entertaining, I found myself wondering just how neglected this poor woman was and how sad it was that she got so much pleasure from a complete stranger just being nice to her. (Her loneliness and desire for attention was not as surprising to me after the doctor revealed his secret desire of drinking beer under a tree with a “pretty, quiet woman” who does not speak other than to say, “poor thing” to him.)
Harvey was written more than half a century ago and is dated in more ways than one. Its sets ( impressively revolving and beautifully rendered by David Rockwell) and costumes (equally pleasing, by Jane Greenwood), as well as its treatment of mental health, all depict the show’s age. But its female characters, were, for me, the most poignant and saddening indicators of its age.
The women are not the only ones who fall under Elwood’s spell; Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanitarium, played in a low-key, thoroughly funny performance by Charles Kimbrough, also enjoys the company of the kind oddball and his invisible friend. His assistant, Dr. Sanderson (Morgan Spector) is not as easily charmed by Elwood, but he is by his nurse, played by Holley Fain. E. J. Lofgren has a short, but important moment as a taxi driver, who warns Veta that treatment at the sanitarium may transform Elwood into a “perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are!”
The charm – and oddity – of Elwood is his ability to connect with people and actually care about them. After he invites a taxi driver to dinner and the driver responds with a perfunctory, “Sure, be glad to,” Elwood asks him sincerely, “When – when would you be glad to?” His guilelessness reflects strongly a society filled with meaningless pleasantries and and empty promises.
Elwood’s earnestness, which is viewed by some as beautiful and others as naive, resonates strongly in a culture of instant gratification and endless options. When chatting with Dr. Chumley, Elwood reveals Harvey’s ability to move him through time and space and shares that he has never taken advantage of this ability. When asked why, Elwood says he has always been perfectly happy to be exactly where he is, when he is there. (This statement was even more meaningful in a performance where numerous cell phones rang throughout the show.)
Elwood’s innocent kindness takes on a more melancholy when Judge Gaffney (Larry Bryggman) a longtime family friend, mentions Elwood’s life before Harvey appeared. According to the judge, Elwood has been well-liked by everyone and his future was bright. Many had expected him to play a prominent role in society. Now he and Harvey sit in bars and talk to strangers, and he seems to want nothing more from life than that. Now few people will interact with him after being introduced to Harvey, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. Whether Elwood is to be pitied or envied is up to the audience to decide.
As Elwood affably says, “I wrestled with reality most of my life. I am happy to say I won over it.” The same could be said of many a theater critic, I believe.