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A CurtainUp Review

Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.—Elwood P. Dowd:
Jim Parsons
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Elwood P. Dowd, the gentle charmer of Mary Chase's 1944 comedy Harvey, would be eccentric even if his constant companion, weren't the title character, a 6'3" rabbit only he can see. Audiences loved Elwood when Chase's quirky fantasy opened at the 48th Street Theater. It ran for 1775 performances, with the original Elwood, vaudeville actor Frank Fay, replaced by various actors — most famously by James Stewart who starred in the movie adaptation that's become one of DVD lands golden oldies. (Stewart also reprised the role in a 1972 Broadway revival).

Harvey's enormous success, which included the Pulitzer Prize for drama, can be attributed to the fact that it offered the kind of light hearted, happy ending fun that's always a welcome tonic to relieve the stresses and strains of war time. Elwood's winning out over draconian attitudes and treatments added a deeper, ahead-of- its- time ironic undercurrent about the real meaning of normalcy. The play's psychiatrists who seem blind to the difference between the behavior of a dreamer and a somewhat peculiar man exhibiting dangerously anti-social behavior, prove themselves to be far crazier and more dangerous than Elwood — which puts Chase's theme years before more open-minded psychiatrists like R.D. Laing came to famously define Insanity as "a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world."

All these pluses notwithstanding Harvey has become something of a quaint antique, occasionally showing up at regional theaters and on late night movie schedules. It's the sort of comedy that's too dated and obvious in content and theme to send today's audiences into gales of laughter, and warrant dipping into an entertainment budget for a high-priced Broadway ticket. With Jimmy Stewart's legendary Elwood P. Dowd preserved on screen, the part has also become a case of impossible shoes to fill (Stephn Spielberg recently abandoned plans to bring to revive it as a movie because he couldn't find an actor willing to tackle the beat-Jimmy Steart challenge).

And yet, here is Harvey back on Broadway and the Roundabout Theater company's large and elegant Studio 54 was packed on the night I attended a press preview. What's more the audience applauded and laughed up a storm, and that audience included a substantial number of people considerably younger than usually seen at a Roundabout show.

The magic bullet used by the company known as an inveterate retriever of old-fashioned hits is of course Jim Parsons. That's the same Parsons whose nerdy Dr. Sheldon Cooper on TV's The Big Bang Theory has won him legions of devoted fans. As one of my friends who's part of that fan base explained to me when she heard that I was going to see and review him in this new Harvey, "Parsons is incredible! I could watch him for hours." On her advice, I dutifully sat through several episodes of the TV show that someone had smartly scheduled as a mini-marathon rerun. While I wasn't smitten with the series, I could see that Parsons might be that charismatic someone who could step quite comfortably into Jimmy Stewart's legendary and film preserved Elwod P. Dowd's shoes.

Obviously many people at Studio 54 last week were, like my friend, dedicated Parsonites. The moment the actor came on stage he was met by thunderous applause — and there was no shortage of belly laughs for the next two hours. Even before the shoutout for Elwood, the audience also applauded Rockwell's first of two smoothly rotating sets, the wood panelled, book-lined living room and entryway of the Dowd family's mansion in Denver Colorado. And there you have the second of the magic bullets the Roundabout regularly uses as ammunition to successfully bring old hits out of retirement: Besides starry casting, the sets and also the costumes are inevitably gorgeous and period perfect (in this production by costumer par excellence Jane Greenwood) .

Parsons is indeed a fine actor. He has a strong, completely relaxed stage presence and expressive body language. While best known for his TV physicist, he's not a stage newcomer. He appeared on Broadway quite recently in the la wonderful revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (also designed by David Rockwell). While Elwood is 47 in the original script, he's now tagged as 39 (Parsons' own age). He looks even younger than that. At any rate he has the sort of face that fits the part as well as any actor I can think of with the possible exception of David Hyde Pierce, who like Parsons had a long runnint TV gig as a mannered, prissy character (Frasier's brother Niles). Elwood is possibly schizophrenic. In light of his always inviting people to have a drink with him, he's also, if not a drunk, a fairly steady tippler. His child-like, genial interactions with everyone he meets also hint at Asperger's Syndrome. As for the people he interacts with — his sister who is driven to frenzied desperation by the ever present but invisible Harvey; her daughter who sees the uncle's peculiarity killing her chances at marriage; the staff of the psychiatric clinic to which he's taken to be kept out of sight or "cured." All are played by a topnotch cast that includes Jessica Hecht, Tracie Chimo, Charles Kimbrough, Larry Bryggman and Carol Kane .

The plot, in case you're unfamiliar with the story: Since Elwood's mother died in his arms and left him her mansion and other properties, grief over her loss possibly seeding the fantasy rabbit. Elwood's older sister Veta Louise Simmons (Hecht) and her unmarried daughter Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo) have moved in with him in hopes of climbing the local social ladder and finding a husband for Myrtle Mae. Much as she loves her brother, Veta puts practicality before sibling loyalty and arranges to have Elwood committed to the local sanitarium run by Dr. William K. Chumley (Kimbrough) who has plenty of his own quirks and who, along with his staff, ends up mistaking Veta and not her brother as the crazy one.

Rockwell's set has enough doors to allow the comic misconceptions to turn into a farce. Carol Kane's brief appearance as Dr. Chumley's wive, caused even me to burst into laughter, even though the play overall didn't alter my rather ho-hum feelings about its relevancy for contemporary audiences)

The charms of Parsons' Elwood, the excellent support of his stage colleagues, Scott Ellis's capable direction, and the handsome production values notwithstanding, I failed to be doubled over with laughter. Call me a sour puss, but for all its silly fun and gentle lesson about respecting each other's peculiarities, Harvey is dated. That said, It's great to see Jim Parsons bringing more young people to the theater. If smart casting like this can help to make all Roundabout shows and not just their worthy $20 black box productions destination events for those too young to qualify for AARP membership, it will be a bit like pulling a human-sized rabbit out of a hat.

Harvey by Mary Chase
Directed by Scott Ellis
Cast: Jim Parsons (Elwood P. Dowd), Jessica Hecht (Veta Louise Simmons), Charles Kimbrough (William R. Chumley, M.D.) ,Larry Bryggman (Judge Omar Gaffney), Carol Kane (Betty Chumley), Peter Benson (E.J. Lofgren), Tracee Chimo (Myrtle Mae Simmons), Holley Fain (Ruth Kelly, R.N.), Angela Paton (Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet), Rich Sommer (Duane Wilson), Morgan Spector (Lyman Sanderson, M.D.)
Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Don Gregory at Studio 54
From 5/`8/12; opening 6/14/12
. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 8th press preview
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