Theatre in Review: Harvey (Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54)
Well, hello there, Harvey; long time, no see. It may not seem like it, but Roundabout has taken a considerable risk in putting on Mary Chase's war horse, which racked up no fewer than 1,775 performances between 1944 and 1949 and spent decades as a community theatre favorite before vanishing. (It was last seen in New York more than four decades ago, with a cast led by James Stewart and Helen Hayes, names that, sadly, are probably unrecognizable to many younger theatregoers.) Generally, when a once massively popular work remains on the shelf that long, it is because time has rendered it unplayable.
Then again, the hearty laughter cascading nightly through the auditorium at Studio 54 suggests that Harvey is a much sturdier piece of comic construction than its longtime absence might suggest. Thanks to Scott Ellis' strongly cast and beautifully designed production, our old friend Harvey is looking far younger than his 68 years. The production is an especially valuable reminder that Chase was a distinctive humorist with a view of the American middle classes that was both acidly accurate and oddly forgiving.
Chase, an Irish-American steeped in the myths and legends of her forbears, specialized in comedies with a touch of the fey about them. Harvey, of course, centers on Elwood P. Dowd, a bibulous bachelor of uncertain years, who insists on the existence of his so-called best friend, a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. (As Elwood notes, Harvey is a pooka, a shape-shifting creature that, according to Irish tradition, can assume the guise of various animals.) A man of modest, if independent, wealth, Elwood lives with -- and subsidizes -- his widowed sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae. Veta's dreams of a life dedicated to gracious living -- at-home musicales, women's club meetings, and get-togethers for the town's young people -- are aimed at finding a socially prominent spouse for Myrtle Mae. Constantly thwarting her plans is Elwood, who, thanks to his many lengthy evenings at a nearby bar, his willingness to make friends with just about anyone, and, of course, his incessant talk about Harvey, consigns Veta and Myrtle Mae to social limbo. (Elwood's impromptu appearance at one of Veta's social events sends the ladies fleeing in bafflement.) In desperation, Veta and Myrtle Mae hatch a plan to dispatch Elwood to the local asylum.
This plan goes wildly awry, allowing Chase to make the point that what passes for normal behavior among so-called nice people is both socially constructed and terribly fragile under stress. Make no mistake, however; Harvey is not to be lumped in with such profoundly dishonest works of the 1960s as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Man of La Mancha, and King of Hearts, all of which insist that insanity is not a crippling disease but a state of holy wisdom. For one thing, there's ample evidence that Harvey does exist -- in a weak moment, Veta admits to occasionally seeing the creature, a remark that, in one of the play's most farcical passages, gets her temporarily locked up and branded "a cunning psychopath." (We also see doors and books opened by invisible hands.) More to the point, Elwood's madness -- if that's the word for it -- is contagious; whether they see him or not, Harvey has a destabilizing effect on everyone's lives.
There are two particularly delectable examples of Harvey's collateral damage. As Veta, a role usually played by much older actresses, Jessica Hecht conjures up her best Irene Dunne manner -- all genteel diction and gracious-lady manners. But, really, she's a woman on the edge; before long, she's unraveling, her birdlike trill dropping a couple of octaves as she unloads a lifetime's worth of complaints. Having been released from the asylum after her brief confinement, she makes a magnificently disheveled entrance, looking like she has been roughed up by a gang of teamsters. And then there's the blood-curdling cry of horror when she realizes that Elwood has hung a large portrait of himself and Harvey on the library wall. Hecht is best-known for her dramatic roles, but this is an excellent reminder of what a skilled farceur she is.
No such reminders are necessary for Charles Kimbrough, whose comic skills were on display for years in the television series Murphy Brown. Here he excels as Dr. Chumley, head of the asylum, known as Chumley's Rest. ("When people have mental breakdowns, they think of Dr. Chumley.") Initially a portrait of intellectual composure, he is horrified to discover that he, too, sees Harvey, and quickly -- and hilariously -- declines to the point where it looks like he could use a good long rest in his own institution. The sight of Dr. Chumley holding onto his sanity by his fingernails -- Kimbrough offers up a symphonic display of gasps, squawks, and nervous tics -- contrasts amusingly with the immovable poise of Jim Parsons' Elwood.
In a role associated for decades with James Stewart -- even though it was created by Frank Fay -- Parsons has big shoes to fill. In addition, there are many questions about Elwood, who is certainly an alcoholic, and, in the view of some critics, an undeclared homosexual. Parsons doesn't attempt to resolve these questions; instead, he takes the character at face value, letting us make of him what we will. The result is a remarkably assured performance that allows Elwood to remain an opaque -- and faintly disturbing -- presence. Offsetting his courtly manners and old-school charm is a lack of social boundaries; when he gets a phone call from a woman soliciting magazine subscriptions, he invites her over to dinner (to Veta's horror). And there's plenty of evidence that, underneath his pleasant exterior, Elwood is very aware of the effect he has on others. ("I wrestled with reality all my life, and I'm happy to state that I have finally won out over it.") Parsons doesn't choose to investigate the deep vein of melancholy in the character -- marked by the moment when Elwood notes he had never known anyone by the name of Harvey before, adding "maybe that's why I had such hopes for it." But, on its own terms, it's a performance that works brilliantly, grounding the play's cartoonish humor in an aura of mystery.
Harvey also benefits from one of the strongest supporting casts to grace a Roundabout production in years. Tracee Chimo impresses once again as Myrtle Mae, an ingénue who means business, even if it requires locking up Elwood for life. ("Oh, Myrtle Mae, you have so much to offer -- I don't care what anyone says," gushes Veta.) Angela Paton has a delightful cameo as a local clubwoman who is reduced to a babbling wreck by her encounter with Elwood. Morgan Spector and Holley Fain do very well by the thinnish roles of the doctor and nurse who constitute the play's romantic interests. Larry Bryggman amuses as the family lawyer, who just wants to get back to the golf course. And Peter Benson has a nice bit as a cab driver who shows up long enough to deliver the play's theme in a nutshell. Only Carol Kane disappoints as Dr. Chumley's wife, who is charmed by Elwood; her eccentric line readings are totally out of keeping with the character.
David Rockwell rarely gets a chance to design straight plays, and when he does, his approach is usually non-naturalistic. But he is an architect, after all, and here he provides Harvey with an ideal pair of interiors. The library of Elwood's house is a richly paneled, and perfectly hideous, example of Victorian respectability that has been allowed to linger on into the 20th century; the kicker is the huge portrait of the family's late matriarch -- a battle-axe if ever there was one -- at upstage center. This contrasts with the bright and airy asylum lobby, a lovely place to rest one's troubled mind. Thanks to the use of three turntables, the scene changes happen expeditiously. Kenneth Posner's lighting adds the necessary polish. Jane Greenwood's costumes are, typically, first-rate, especially the finely tailored men's suits and Veta's severely color-matched outfits. Obadiah Eaves' sound design is thoroughly solid.
As Charles Isherwood notes in his Times review, in what now seems like a scandalous decision, Harvey -- charming as it is -- beat out The Glass Menagerie for the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. (Is anyone up for a revival of State of the Union, the 1946 winner?) Oddly enough, there are certain areas of overlap between Chase's comedy and Tennessee Williams' masterpiece. Both feature a single middle-American mother desperately trying to secure her daughter's future, efforts that are undone by a heavy-drinking, non-confirming male family member. There's no real comparison between the two, but it's interesting that, even before World War II was over, both Chase and Williams focused on people who opt to live outside mainstream "respectable" society. We tend to think of this as a preoccupation of later decades, but these playwrights got there first. Perhaps that is why Harvey still has something to offer even today.--David Barbour