Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 14, 2012
Harvey by Mary Chase. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music & sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Jim Parsons, Jessica Hecht, Charles Kimbrough, with Larry Bryggman, Peter Benson, Tracee Chimo, Holley Fain, Angela Paton, Rich Sommer, Morgan Spector, and Carol Kane.
What it doesn't do, at least as well as it could, is ground those fantasy elements strongly enough in reality so that, when the payoff arrives, you're fully prepared for it. Although Parsons, as the preternaturally good-natured rabbit-lover Elwood P. Dowd, maintains the proper balance between optimism and cluelessness to always keep you guessing, Ellis has more trouble deciding whether he wants to present the story as an earnest morality tale or as a cartoon. Harvey, perhaps deceptively, cannot have it both ways.
At first you may think that Parsons is trying to do the same thing. When he initially enters deep into the play's first scene, bearing a slightly dopey, puffed-cheek expression, he appears poised to highlight to excess Elwood's eccentricities (which include expecting the best of everyone and always taking others at their word). But no: The actor — best known from TV's The Big Bang Theory, though he also made an impressive Broadway debut in last season's revival of The Normal Heart — never looks down on his character. As soon as he starts interacting with his sister Veta (Jessica Hecht), her daughter Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo), who live with him in his house, and the myriad others to whom he always hands out business cards and from whom he politely requests a visit or phone call, it's clear that this is who Elwood is: dazed and deluded, yes, but also an ideal to which everyone should aspire. We see Elwood as different because of his utter lack of guile: Parsons makes him feel wrong by making him so incredibly right.
This fulfills the role's most important goal, and makes us inhabitants of the world that wants to normalize Elwood. Veta is our representative — she knows about Harvey all too well and hates him (and especially his impact on her social calendar), to the extent that she checks her brother into Chumley's Rest Sanitarium. Of course, the situation is too zany for even the people there to accept, and on-call physician Lyman Sanderson (Morgan Spector) commits Veta instead, which sets off a chain reaction of mistakes and confusions that eventually embroil everyone, including the especially fascinated lead doctor William Chumley (Charles Kimbrough), in the insanity. Elwood's state of mind that can only be cured, it turns out, with a shot of a certain drug that, Veta and everyone else is assured, will succeed in making Elwood just like everyone else — assuming they can convince him to take it and convince themselves it's really for the best.
Elements of farce liberally pepper the plentiful slapstick, so entertainment is never an issue, and Ellis stages many of those moments well on David Rockwell's two appropriately elegant-silly sets (one for Elwood's house and one for the sanitarium). But the property's ubiquity, particularly thanks to the faithful and famous 1950 film starring James Stewart, has dulled a lot of the sharper edges that likely once cut more deeply. If you're not continually faced throughout the first act with the question of whether Harvey's real — and, if so, why he's involved — tension is rare, and the plot's machinations lose their urgency as you wait for everyone onstage to catch up. This makes it even more important that the direction and performances, especially in the central roles surrounding Elwood, are pitched precisely enough to guide the story to its heightened emotional endpoint.
The rest of the roles matter somewhat less, though they're all ably filled. Chimo is a flat-out riot as Myrtle Mae, deliciously oversized without being overboard, and displaying exactly the right concern for her uncle's well-being and her own. Spector projects the proper curiosity as the ready-for-anything doctor, which is reflected nicely in the work of Holley Fain, who's a delight as the Chumley's Rest nurse who not-so-secretly loves him. Larry Bryggman's comic turn as the family lawyer who tries to protect Elwood is a highly nuanced one, to the point that he seems like he'd be an ideal Chumley. In two minor appearances, Angela Paton sparkles as a society matron Veta longs to impress, and Carol Kane squeezes plenty of juice from Chumley's influential wife, Betty.
In the final scene, however, everyone delivers — especially Hecht, who is at her most honest and affecting when Veta faces up to how much she wants to change Elwood — and you learn why Harvey has endured 67 years since its Broadway premiere (and 42 since its last revival). This is a play about the most human of feelings and failings, and how we deal with them (and not always well); most of us need reminders about the ways our choices influence others, and the importance of sacrifice to contribute to a more peaceful and useful world — even of the things we think are most important to us. The deeper you dig, Chase tells us, the more you may discover that your misconceptions are, and have always been, wrong.
"'In this world, Elwood,'" says Mr. Dowd late in the evening, recalling the words of his mother, "'you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.' For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant." That line may get a hearty laugh, even today, and after all the behavior you've seen to that point from both Elwood and others, it's understandable. But because we all either know or are an Elwood, those words resound just as much as a description of the play itself. It may present itself as pleasant, but it's far smarter — and more wrenching — than it's often credited with being.