Thursday, July 5, 2012

Harvey at Roundabout Theatre Company's Studio 54

"In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.  Well, for years, I was smart.  I recommend pleasant."

Every once in a while, a professional theater company revives an old chestnut, a play or musical that has been regulated to community and student productions.   That is not to say that the world of amateur theatrics cannot produce a well-acted, thoughtful production.   Yet, when the pros decide to make a revival with the resources available to give it spit and polish, the results give theater-goers a chance to revisit an old friend and delight in the wonders that visiting such a friend can bring.

Roundabout Theatre Company brings a gem of a production of Mary Chase's Pulitzer winning comedy, Harvey.   Yes, there are those who have reviewed this production that lament that Harvey won the Pulitzer over the vastly more meaty drama of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Yet, when one looks at the context of when the two plays were produced on Broadway near the end of World War II, one can see, perhaps, the reason that the gentle Harvey was embraced so near the end to so horrible a conflict.

Here we have the tale of Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric middle-aged man, who delights in his daily imbibing of alcohol and the encounters that he makes with the people he meets.   Elwood mostly delights in his friendship with Harvey, a pooka spirit that has taken the form of a 6' 3" invisible white rabbit.   This deeply troubles his sister, Veta, worried that Elwood's eccentricities are ruining her social standing and the prospects for her daughter, Myrtle Mae. Veta is determined to have Elwood committed to a mental sanitarium.   The ensuing encounters with the doctors and staff of the sanitarium lead to misunderstandings.  Just who is the one needing the intervention? And, more importantly, is Harvey real?

Director Scott Ellis has shaped this production in such a way that the material feels fresh despite the situation and conflicts being well and truly of the time in which the play was written.  It was a good decision to cut the second intermission from the original three act play as the pace of the play subsequently moves at the right speed.   Jane Greenwood's costumes and Tom Watson's hair and wig design compliment the actors even those stuck in medical uniforms.  David Rockwell's two-sided set shows the old-fashioned, yet ornate Dowd estate and the clinical yet, strangely inviting sanitarium.  Obadiah Eaves' original music and sound design gently supports the play inviting the audience into the world of Elwood and Harvey.

The acting ensemble is taut and Roundabout has assembled some terrific stage veterans, some of whom prove the adage that there are no small parts only small actors.   Carol Kane is a prime example of this taking the small role of the head psychiatrist's wife, Betty Chumley and injecting her performance with delightful silliness as she portrays a society wife who views her husband's diagnoses as an obstacle to getting to a reception on time.   Rich Sommer as the thuggish orderly Duane Wilson uses his imposing frame well, yet proves adept at physical comedy as he manhandles poor Veta.  Larry Bryggman proves yet again why he is a mainstay of the New York stage as Judge Gaffney whether exasperated at having his golf game interrupted or trying to navigate his legal duties to both Veta and Elwood.

In the pivotal role of Dr. Chumley, the head of psychiatry who ends up forever changed by his encounters with Elwood and Harvey, Charles Kimbrough who normally portrays the role was absent from this performance.   In his stead, his understudy Jeffrey Hayenga proved himself more than a competent replacement clearly showing the madcap unhinging of this logical man's world view.

Jessica Hecht is perfectly batty has Veta. Veta has her own life-changing journey and Ms. Hecht brings comedic fun to the unraveling Veta. Whether it is protecting her society maven friends from her brother's antics to surviving a treatment in the hydro tub, poor put-upon Veta is in sure hands in Ms. Hecht's performance.

Jim Parsons made an impressive Broadway debut in the spring of 2011 in the acclaimed revival of The Normal Heart.   Here he tackles the leading role of Elwood P. Dowd under the twin challenges of the iconic Jimmy Stewart film performance and his own status as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.   It is a testament to Mr. Parsons that he takes Elwood and puts his own stamp on the role.   Mr. Parsons is charming.   One wishes to travel to Elwood's small town, accept his card and invitation to join him for drinks at Charlie's and pass a few pleasant hours giving up reality just as Elwood has chosen to do.

And as for Harvey?   He has a commanding stage presence in his well-tailored suit.  His stage mischief seems harmless and his performance brings joy to us all.

Mary Chase's Harvey is being presented at Studio 54 by Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City through August 5, 2012.   With Charles Kimbrough, Tracee Chimo, Angela Paton, Holley Fain, Morgan Spector and Peter Benson.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

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