30 July 2012


Jim Parsons is Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once the famed haunt of disco divas, Studio 54 is currently home to a rabbit named Harvey.

Harvey is the story of one Elwood P. Dowd, an affable bachelor who lives with his widowed sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, in the Dowd family’s Denver mansion in 1944. Elwood likes to pass out his card to people he meets and spend his afternoons drinking at Charlie’s Bar with his friend Harvey. Not so unusual until you learn that Harvey is an invisible six foot three and a half inch white rabbit whom Elwood insists on introducing to everyone he meets. Harvey you see is a pooka, a creature from Irish mythology that usually takes the shape of an oversized animal, and apparently only Elwood can see him (well, most of the time). Intent on introducing her daughter into high society, Veta sees Elwood as an embarrassment and tries to have her brother committed to the local sanatorium, Chumley’s Rest. But Veta’s plans go astray when her frantic tale gets her admitted instead while Elwood and Harvey go on their way. After Veta’s release, everyone searches frantically for Elwood who shows up at Chumley’s Rest looking for a missing Harvey. He proceeds to charm the staff, making a profound impact on them while Veta decides that regardless of Harvey, she likes Elwood just the way he is.

Made into a much beloved film in 1950 with James Stewart in the Elwood role, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase may at first seem too old-fashioned for a revival but this Harvey is utterly delightful due largely to the casting of Jim Parsons as Elwood. Parsons is a perfect Elwood. With his childlike interest in the most common of things, gentlemanly manners, and unwavering belief in Harvey, the role could have been all wrong in the hands of another actor. But Parsons makes Elwood utterly believable. He is able to convey all the wonderment of Elwood’s view of the world without coming off as corny or clichéd. He also does a fine job maneuvering around the stage with an invisible rabbit next to his side.

In one monologue Elwood explains how he came to meet Harvey. “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Dowd.’ I turned, and there was this great white rabbit leaning against a lamppost.” You never learn exactly why Harvey appears to Elwood when he does. Could it be a result of Elwood’s alcoholism?  Maybe. But when he says, “Doctor, I wrestled with reality for forty years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it” you get the feeling there’s some other tragedy from his past that Harvey helps Elwood to forget.

Jessica Hecht and Jim Parsons in a scene from Harvey. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Jessica Hecht turns in an outstanding performance as sister Veta. Speaking in a perfect 1940s voice (she could have stepped right out of a black and white movie), Hecht makes Veta very likable even when she is at her shrillest. And the moment when she lets slip that she too has seen Harvey is one of the great moments in the play.

The rest of the cast is top notch including Charles Kimbrough as the befuddled Dr William R. Chumley, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer doing his best Jack Carson as the orderly Wilson, and a brilliant cameo by Carol Kane as Chumley’s wife Betty.

The set is wonderful, rotating between the Dowd household, all wood and Victorian furniture, and the sanatorium’s waiting room, minimal and bright white. And the special effects (“Harvey” flips through a book and opens and closes doors) were just right.

The night I went, the theatre was packed and the audience lively (the fans of Jim Parsons, best known for his role as Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, were particularly vocal). Walking out of the theatre afterwards, I couldn’t help but glance at each lamppost I passed to see if there were any white rabbits. 

Harvey plays at Studio 54 through August 5. For more information, visit here.

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