In the wake of the Great Depression, and against the horrific backdrop of World War II, playwright Mary Chase wrote "Harvey," a touching plea for civility in callous times.
A slyly simple fable, it is about an extraordinary man named Elwood P. Dowd whose specialness comes from an unwavering kindness and concern for his fellow human beings. Although, for some, this genuine decency might be enough to cast doubt on Elwood’s mental health, it is his best friend, the eponymous Harvey, who really sets tongues wagging.
A mischievous Celtic spirit, or pooka, Harvey has taken the form of a man-sized rabbit, one that usually only Elwood can see. Occasionally, however, Harvey does reveal himself to those sad souls desperate to see something that proves the world is still a wondrous place and not just reducible to the sum of its problems.
Unlike her contemporary, Clifford Odets, Chase did not idealize political struggle as a means of remedying society’s ills, even though her working-class and union roots ran deep. Instead, "Harvey" falls more into line with the works of William Saroyan and Thornton Wilder, humanistic writers who argued that our best bet for making life a little less difficult is always each other.
Now back on Broadway after a four-decade absence, it took courage for the show’s producers and director Scott Ellis to revive a work prone, in the same breath, to being praised and dismissed as quaint. But in an age when the sorrows of loneliness seem to be as pronounced as ever, despite the dubious promises of social media, perhaps an old-fashioned reminder of the joys of actual human contact is what we need, and crave.
Jim Parsons, from television’s amusingly geeky "The Big Bang Theory" and last theater season’s terrific "The Normal Heart," portrays Elwood. And, obviously, he has a considerable challenge to overcome: tamping down our memories of Jimmy Stewart’s version of the character in the much-beloved 1950 film adaptation of "Harvey."
At this most basic level, Parsons succeeds because, as with his television persona -- the steadfastly routine-driven physicist Sheldon Cooper -- Parsons once again evinces a flare for charming an audience through peculiarity.
Furthermore, of the two actors, and please do not keel over if this statement strikes you as pooka-seeing crazy talk, Parsons gives the better performance. Whereas Stewart -- who never could come off as wholly benevolent in any part -- imbued Elwood with a subtle note of darkness, as if there is at least a small chance that he ultimately could be psychotic, Parsons does not cause us to doubt Elwood’s good-naturedness or sanity. Respectfully sticking to Chase’s storytelling intentions, Parsons offers a genial, straightforward embodiment of the character, which is, frankly, more satisfying than what Stewart did.
As Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta Louise Simmons, Jessica Hecht is also performing in a significant acting shadow, one cast by Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for her efforts in the 1950 film. And, like her predecessor, Hecht is marvelous, too, handling the play’s most complex role with both ample sensitivity and comedic skill.
Despite her many personal shortcomings, which Chase ridicules thoroughly, Veta does love her brother, but perhaps not as much as her society-page reputation.
Veta’s selfish, man-obsessed daughter Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo) strongly encourages her mother to favor the latter, which Veta does, with noticeable regret. After seeking advice from a family friend, Judge Omar Gaffney (Larry Bryggman), the conflicted Veta decides to have Elwood committed to a local sanitarium run by the stone-faced Dr. William Chumley (Charles Kimbrough).
For Veta, Elwood’s public behavior, which includes politely introducing his invisible companion to perplexed locals like the upper crust Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet (Angela Paton), has become too great a detriment to her superficial ambitions.
On the verge of locking her brother away, however, a series of screwball misunderstandings occur, and Veta ends up being dragged off by Dr. Chumley’s gruff orderly (Rich Sommer) and subjected to bizarre psychiatric treatments.
Meanwhile, Elwood’s impeccable manners, along with some well-timed, Harvey-introducing interruptions, lead Dr. Chumley’s second-in-command Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Morgan Spector) and head nurse (Holley Fain) to release Elwood, with all due apologies.
In the hijinks that ensue, Hecht, Kimbrough, and Carol Kane, as a flaky Mrs. Chumley, are the silly stand-outs, each tearing down their respective character’s dignified facade to expose the hilarious, and surprisingly affecting, truth underneath. Once laid bare, it becomes apparent that Veta and Dr. Chumley, in particular, want to attain the peace of mind evident on Elwood’s beatific face, which will require a come-to-Harvey moment for each of them.
As for Elwood, at heart, he is a man who, when he asks a hard-bitten cab driver (Peter Benson), "Have you lived around here very long?" and "Do you enjoy your work?," sincerely wants to know the answers. As the cabbie sardonically observes, this type of compassion is, in fact, enough to have someone declared bonkers.
Maybe the central message of "Harvey" is not very radical, or hip, but it sure seems fundamental.
"Harvey" runs through August 5 at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. For info or tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit the Roundabout Theatre Company’s website.