THE TELEVISION SUPERSTAR TURNS OUT TO HAVE GREAT STAGE CHOPS
BY HENRY EDWARDS
"I wrestled with reality most of my life, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it."
So says Elwood P. Dowd, the middle-aged, amiable, delightfully eccentric hero of one of the best known—although rarely—if ever seen—classic American comedies, Mary Ellen Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer prize-winning “Harvey.”
Elwood's eccentricity (as virtually everyone knows) stems from the fact that he has a best friend—a very special best friend—and that best friend just happens to be an invisible six-foot three-and-one-half-inch tall rabbit whose name is Harvey.
Revived in 1970 and not seen on Broadway since then, Chase's comedy has been given a loving, immaculately calibrated production at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 under the impeccable directorial baton of Scott Ellis.
"Harvey" is the sixth longest-running play in Broadway history with Frank Fay, Joe E. Brown, Jack Buchanan and James Stewart portraying Elwood during the show's four-and-a-half year run.
Stewart went on to immortalize his stage performance in a beloved 1950 film version, subsequently recognized in 2008 by the American Film Institute as the seventh best fantasy movie in American cinema history.
Stewart also headlined the 1970 Main Stem stage revival and a 1972 television version; thus the character of Elwood rightfully ranks as one of the legendary performer's signature portrayals.
Understandably, few if any stars have been willing to take on "Jimmy Stewart's role"—until now.
After making his Broadway debut in a small role in last summer’s award-winning revival of “The Normal Heart,” Jim Parsons, star of the hit CBS sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” made what would turn out to be an exceptionally wise decision, to return to the Big Apple to star as Elwood.
On TV, Parsons portrays Sheldon Cooper, a genius physicist with nonexistent social skills. Elwood is Sheldon’s opposite, and Parsons carries it off brilliantly.
Elwood P. Dowd knows exactly who he is and what he believes life is all about. He has wonderful manners, is unfailingly courteous and treats everyone with enormous respect.
Radiating genuine star quality, Parsons presents the perfect picture of this lovable character. Sweet and radiating wonder, funny and surprisingly touching, Parsons's performance is filled with extraordinary detail, and yet it looks effortless, clear evidence that a terrific stage actor is in charge of the proceedings.
Elwood’s social-climbing sister, Veta Louise (Jessica Hecht) and his niece, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo), live with him. Craving normality and a place in "society," they are driven to distraction by Elwood introducing everyone he meets to Harvey, leading Vera to try to have Elwood committed to Chumley's Rest, a sanatorium run by eminent psychiatrist, Dr. William R. Chumley (Charles Kimbrough).
Hecht, brilliant in "A View from the Bridge" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs," is riotously funny and intense this time around, displaying a previously undisclosed set of skills that mark her as an expert farceur. Kimbrough is equally riotious as the psychiatrist who's ready to institutionalize Elwood but ends up believing in Harvey.
Larry Bryggman as a judge who happens to be a family friend, Rich Sommer (Harry Crane on "Mad Men");as a no nonsense orderly, Morgan Spector and Holley Fain as a young psychiatrist and nurse and Carol Kane in a cameo as Dr. Chumley's bemused wife round out a superlative cast.
As effortless as all of this looks, the play is a chestnut, essentially thin by today's standards, and director Scott Ellis, navigating what could be a tricky situation, treats the play with consummate respect and affection, orchestrating it perfectly.
"Harvey" is also blessed with a superlative physical production. A round of applause greeted the breathtaking interior designed David Rockwell seen immediately after the curtain rose. Applause subsequently greeted Rockwell's high-tech transformation as the ravishing Dowd library was miraculously transformed into the far more sterile Chumley's Rest waiting room.
Jane Greenwood (costume design) and Kenneth Posner (lighting design) also make elegant contributions.
"My mother used to say to me, 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.' For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant," says Elwood.
"Harvey" pays tribute to gentility and kindness, resulting in theatrical comfort food of the highest order. This particular meal tastes delicious.
"Harvey" at Studio 54 continues through August 5 (www.roundabouttheatre.org).