Thursday, May 24, 2012

'Harvey': A Little Pooka Magic Lights Up The Stage'

There is a singular magical moment in Harvey, the comedy-fantasy play by Mary Chase now in revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54. 

That moment marks the point where Harvey ceases to be a whimsical bit of fluff about the kind-hearted eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, the moment when disbelief goes out the window and it becomes possible—even sensible—to believe in pookas.

It turns on a remark made by the chief of a psychiatric rest home, Dr. Chumley, who—as the surrogate for the skeptics among us—has come to realize there is more to our existence than science alone can explain.

“I've been spending my life among flyspecks,” he says, “while miracles have been leaning on lampposts at 18th and Fairfax.” 

It is at that point that we understand why Harvey had a run of 1,775 performances and walked off with the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945, the year the Pulitzer committee bypassed Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie

World War II had taken such a terrible toll; imagine having a friend who could stop time, so that—as Elwood explains it—“you can go anywhere you like — with anyone you like — and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by.” 

Think about your own life and tell me this is not a tempting thought to get lost in for a while. 

Even though it is the film version of Harvey, dating from five years later, that has stuck in the collective unconscious of all who have ever seen it, I have to say it is a real treat to see this charmer on stage. 

No, Jim Parsons is not Jimmy Stewart, but he does a fine job as the man who is quite content to have as his best friend someone he describes as most closely resembling a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit, unfortunately invisible to pretty much everyone else.  It is Elwood's ability to apply his own gentle logic to every situation, his ability to charm everyone he meets, that makes him every bit as significant as his pal.  It is small wonder that Harvey has chosen to hang around with him.   

Elwood would be perfectly happy going through life meeting up with old friends and making new ones—with Harvey at his side—but for the obvious pain it has been bringing to his sister Veta (Jessica Hecht) and niece Myrtle (Tracee Chimo), who find the whole thing perplexing and socially embarrassing.

Reluctantly, Veta has decided that her brother—not to mention she and her daughter—would be better off if he were to be safely ensconced at Chumley’s Rest Home. The play unfolds with the clash of alternative realities, until all is set right at the end.

The production is aided in no small way by its slate of experienced and talented actors.  In addition to Parsons, Hecht, and Chimo, we have Charles Kimbrough as Dr. Chumley, and, in the role of his wife, the always-delightful Carol Kane.  Rounding out the cast are two other veterans, Angela Paton and Larry Bryggman, along with Holley Fain, Rich Sommer, Morgan Spector, and Peter Benson.  The fine set design is by David Rockwell, with costumes by Jane Greenwood, and the whole thing is kept moving at a steady clip by director Scott Ellis. 

If you have it within you to succumb to a little bit of pooka magic, then Harvey will leave you feeling very happy indeed.

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