Mary Chase was an accredited playwright when her Harvey opened at the 48th Street Playhouse in late 1944. The second world war was still raging, light hearted musicals like Follow the Girls and Early to Bed were trying to lighten the load, serious dramas like Maxwell Anderson’s The Eve of St. Mark, Robert Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, Lillian Hellman’s The Searching Wind, Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine (note the serious tone of those titles) were reminding audiences that there were brave people fighting to keep them free.
Into this mix a little anticipated gentle comedy floated on November 1st, and it stayed afloat for 1775 performances. In 1970, it brought film star James Stewart back to Broadway to play Elwood P. Dowd for 87 performances , with stage star Helen Hayes supporting him as his sister Veta Louise. Stewart hankered to return to the role he’d so sweetly played in the film version back in 1950.
And now, the Roundabout has resurrected it, this time serving a rising star called Jim Parsons, who first introduced himself to us with a fine performance in the last revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. For tv fans, he’s made a name for himself in the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” but Harvey is a three time winner for giving fine actors a role in which they can shine, glow and delight. Ms. Chase’s Elwood was first played by Frank Fay in the twilight of his career, and it put him back on the map, bringing him to the attention of a new generation of theatre goers, which included me.
There is an enduring sweetness about this tale of a gentle soul, living in a large family house with his sister and his niece. Everyone in town (a town out west somewhere, unnamed) knows and likes Elwood. He’s never harmed a fly, and though he drinks too much, no one seems to know that’s bad for him. For he’s a charming drunk, one who is comfortable bending anyone’s ear who will listen.
One can only suspect that Elwood is lonely, that he cannot find enough barflies at his local taverns to keep him company, so he goes slightly over the edge by imagining that one evening, as he was standing on a corner, a six foot 3 1/2″ white rabbit named Harvey introduced himself. Elwood responded, and they’ve been inseparable ever since.
Sister Veta Louise has grown tired of Harvey, whom she cannot see or hear, and when Elwood embarrasses her by introducing Harvey to a prominent guest in their home, she begins proceedings to have him committed to a very pleasant home for mentally ill people. She will live to regret that decision, and how that happens is what makes up Acts two and three of this still charming and endearing comedy.
Mr. Parsons is the tent pole that keeps it upright. It’s an absolute joy to watch him outsmart, outtalk, defeat all those who try to incarcerate him or banish Harvey.
No sirreee, he’ll have none of that, and there are just enough surprises in the second half of the play to keep us playing along, to continue allowing ourselves to join him in his perilous journey to a very happy conclusion.
In support, Jessica Hecht has chosen a very different path than did Josephine Hull, who played Veta originally and on film, and Helen Hayes, who played her in the revival with James Stewart. Instead of a roly-poly dithering character lady, Veta has, in her hands, become slim, chic, fast talking and a tad phony.
Her daughter Myrtle Mae as played by Tracy Chimo is a very today girl, fast talking, eccentric, very 21st Century. She comes complete, minus only an iPhone and a laptop to join the “totally, awesome and cool” generation, a little out of place in 1944. Get over that slight error in judgment, and Ms. Chimo is funny, if a little out of sync with the play.
Beautifully mounted with a set by David Rockwell and the comfortable small town clothes by Jane Greenwood of middle America in the 40s, it’s easy to feel right at home visiting Elwood, his sister Veta Louise, and his friends at Dr. Chumley’s Rest Home which seems to have as many eccentrics on its staff as it does in its hospital beds.
Larry Bryggman and Carol Kane, both welcome back to the theatre, bring just the right comic energy to their supporting roles, and Angela Paton gets big laughs in her one big scene as a society matron.
With Broadway turning more and more to the past to find scripts, I welcome this relic for it offers a role to a star performer that allows him to strut his stuff in a way that the 90 minute one-acters that are the new standard do not. The Roundabout continues to honor its mandate to keep theatre’s past alive, and to offer roles to actors who are not well known onstage, but who totally deserve to be there.
Harvey, due to close Aug 5, 2012, is in performance at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York, NY.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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