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NEW YORK – With fatigue from the Tony Awards and the glut of April openings still lingering, it’s a pleasure to report that Harvey, the first entry of the 2012-13 Broadway season is an unassuming charmer. Best known for the 1950 film adaptation that starred James Stewart, Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-winning 1944 comedy is a delectable mid-century chestnut with an idiosyncratic personality that still sparkles. And in Scott Ellis’ superbly cast revival for Roundabout Theatre Company, the gentle farce provides an ideal vehicle for the gifted Jim Parsons.
After making a warm impression in a small part last year in Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama, The Normal Heart, Parsons heads the ensemble here. He plays Elwood P. Dowd, the blissfully unconcerned pariah of a well-heeled Denver family, whose best friend is the 6-foot-tall invisible white rabbit that gives the comedy its name. The role is a terrific fit for the immensely likable star of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. His quirky line readings and courtly, unfailingly chipper manner bring just the right mix of graciousness and oddball eccentricity. He’s also nothing like Stewart, which helps in making the iconic part his own.
Ellis has surrounded Parsons with a lovely cast that – for a play in which peculiarity is entirely subjective – is suitably chock full o’ nuts. Chief among them is a wonderfully frazzled Jessica Hecht as Elwood’s high-strung sister Veta, the role that won Josephine Hull a supporting actress Oscar in the movie. Hecht has done fine work in recent seasons in A View From the Bridge and Brighton Beach Memoirs. But she does extraordinary things here with her voice and body language, playing a woman who’s tightly wound but at the same time flighty and ethereal.
To Elwood, the constant companionship of a pooka – a mischievous spirit from Celtic folklore, often manifested as a large animal – is perfectly normal. But to prim Veta, the unseen Harvey is social death, killing her chances of finding a suitable husband for her daughter Myrtle Mae, played with amusingly self-centered brittleness by Tracee Chimo. Elwood’s habit of tippling his days away in downtown bars, mingling with all sorts of lowlife, doesn’t sit well with Veta either.
Given that Elwood controls the family estate, the only way to salvage their reputation is to have him institutionalized. But while recounting the details of Elwood’s case at Chumley’s Rest, a local sanitarium, Veta spirals into such a state of manic anxiety and confusion – confessing that she has seen the giant rabbit herself on occasion – that she ends up being committed instead.
This sets off an increasingly chaotic chain of events as Elwood slips away for cocktails after beguiling the sanitarium staff, while the family legal advisor, Judge Gaffney (Larry Bryggman), and crusty head shrink Dr. William Chumley (Charles Kimbrough) race all over town trying to locate him.
Much of the comedy is hatched out of situations that are now less than fresh – the innocent savant; the crazy person who is the sanest one of the bunch; the preference for an elastic reality over a society of rigid norms. “I wrestled with reality most of my life, and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it,” says Elwood in a typically candid moment of self-exposure.
But along with weighing the perceived threat of a vivid imagination against oppressive conformity, Chase is whimsically reflecting on the value of true friendship and the validity of opting to eliminate life’s complications. The serenity with which Elwood experiences every encounter, finding interest, enjoyment and surprise even in the most banal of them, makes him a refreshingly radical figure in a world of rules. It’s that simplicity that keeps the play’s appeal – and the character’s – intact almost 70 years after it was written. Quoting his late mother, Elwood says, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.” He adds, “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
Whether Elwood is sipping whiskey all day in a dive bar or talking to his invisible friend, the playwright steadfastly refuses to judge him.
Wearing a carefree smile that frequently explodes into infectious delight, Parsons is all impeccable manners and imperturbable contentment, fully convincing as a man who appears never to have had an uncharitable thought in his life. And yet there’s not the slightest hint of simple-mindedness. Without ever winking at the audience, his winning performance conveys a strong sense of being the most grounded person onstage.
This becomes more apparent as the people around him unravel, starting with Veta, who returns from her brief spell in the hydrotherapy tub at Chumley’s Rest shaken and mortified, but also bizarrely stimulated. (She and Myrtle Mae wear their sexual frustration like matching mother-and-daughter outfits.) With her stockings around her ankles and her limbs knotted together in a borderline seizure, Hecht plays this comic gem of a scene to the hilt. Later, when faced with the consequences of a potentially irreversible decision concerning Elwood’s treatment, Veta’s true compassion surfaces, bringing other shadings to Hecht’s marvelous performance.
Bryggman also has his moments as the befuddled Judge, who resents all the fuss with Elwood intruding on his golf game, while Kimbrough makes the crumbling of Dr. Chumley’s pompous authority and his craving for simple comfort strangely touching.
Carol Kane adds her trademark loony-tunes stamp to the mix as Chumley’s daffy wife, while Mad Men regular Rich Sommer makes an appealing Broadway debut as Wilson, a burly attendant at the sanitarium who catches Myrtle Mae’s eye. Angela Paton is priceless in one brief scene as a society matron whose poise is completely undone upon being introduced to Harvey. The flirtation disguised as hostility between Chumley’s nurse (Holley Fain) and junior shrink (Morgan Spector) is a harmless enough plot digression, but it doesn’t add much beyond providing a contrast to Elwood’s unimpeded directness.
Both in stage work and television (on shows including 30 Rock and Modern Family) Ellis has proven himself to be a dab hand at directing comedy. He prods the traffic along in brisk, buoyant style on David Rockwell’s handsome revolving set, resulting in a comedy that seems tighter than many plays from that period. Particularly when Parsons or Hecht is onstage, Harvey is a sweet treat.
Venue: Studio 54, New York (runs through Aug. 5)
Cast: Jim Parsons, Jessica Hecht, Charles Kimbrough, Larry Bryggman, Carol Kane, Peter Benson, Tracee Chimo, Holley Fain, Angela Paton, Rich Sommer, Morgan Spector
Playwright: Mary Chase
Director: Scott Ellis
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Music/sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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