Let us set aside, for the moment, the question of the wisdom of reviving Mary Chase's 1944 play about a man whose best friend is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. Even assuming - and it's a big assumption - that Harvey is a good candidate for a Broadway-bound revival, the production headed for the Lyceum this fall after its run at the Laguna Playhouse should turn tail and scamper in the other direction.
Standing alone, there's nothing wrong with a doddering Dowd. Actually, it's an interpretation around which a decent revival of Harvey could center. Picture an amiable yet clueless fellow, who moves slower than the fast-paced world around him. He always finds time to take an interest in his fellow human beings and always displays the best manners when everyone else would disregard propriety in the interest of getting on with the business at hand. Elwood as a loveable old fool certainly has potential.
But the real problem with this Harvey is that the world of this play is not moving substantially faster than Durning's interpretation of Dowd. In the first act, Dowd speaks with a psychiatrist who keeps cutting him off whenever Dowd tries to introduce him to Harvey. It's an important scene because the psychiatrist's failure to realize Dowd believes he can see a six-foot tall rabbit sets in motion various comic mishaps. But the psychiatrist (played by Stephen O'Mahoney) isn't moving fast enough to just barrel over Dowd's attempts to make a proper introduction. Instead, there's no humor to the scene, and the doctor just seems rude.
The lagging pace is not limited to any one scene, but really infects the entire production. The comedy in Harvey is supposed to come from some screwball mishaps and misunderstandings, and you just can't play "zany" slow. Joyce Van Patten, as Dowd's long-suffering sister Veta, manages to wring some laughs out of a monologue or two when she lets them build to an insanely frustrated conclusion. But her performance, too, suffers from lethargy, particularly when she drags a mildly funny piece of physical comedy out for continued cheap laughs. By the time Dick Van Patten, as head psychiatrist Dr. Chumley, enters - nearly an hour into the play - there's little he can do to ignite a spark of activity. And although he brings some sense of urgency to the play, he, too, operates much too slowly (sometimes literally - at the climax of the play, he enters an offstage room to give a patient an injection, and the process somehow takes longer than it would if he'd distilled the serum by hand). Director Charles Nelson Reilly, who certainly knows what comic timing should look like, brings this show in at just under three hours, which is much too long for a light little diversion like Harvey.
Which brings us to the script. There's nothing in Harvey that is roll-in-the-aisles funny. At best, Harvey is something like the protagonist it celebrates: a nice, sweet, harmless throwback to an earlier time. It's very dated; in some places, such as a workplace love/hate relationship which looks to modern audiences like sexual harassment, it is too dated to be charming. Given that, one certainly wonders whether this play even merits a full-scale Broadway revival. But that question should be saved for a production that really gives the play a fair chance, and that isn't the one currently headed for Broadway.
Harvey runs at the Laguna Playhouse through August 31, 2003. For more information, call (949) 497-ARTS, or see www.lagunaplayhouse.com.
Laguna Playhouse - Richard Stein, Artistic Director; Andrew Barnicle, Artistic Director - present, in association with Don Gregory, Harvey, by Mary Chase. Scenic Design by James Noone; Lighting Design by Ken Billington; Costume Design by Noel Taylor; Sound Design by David Edwards; Production Stage Manager David Mingrino; Production Manager Jim Ryan. Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly.