Broadway review: ‘Harvey'

Posted: June 15, 2012

The actor Jim Parsons has become famous playing a quirky physicist on TV's The Big Bang Theory, and now he's on Broadway, doing wonderful justice to a character with a completely different set of quirks.

While Parsons' Dr. Sheldon Cooper is a fussy guy who sticks religiously to a routine and lacks empathy and social skills, Parsons in Broadway's revival of "Harvey" plays an accepting man overloaded with empathy and social skills so literal, they allow him no room for sarcasm or even a touch of irony.

Maybe that's why the character, Elwood P. Dowd, is able to believe unfailingly in his best friend Harvey, a 6-foot, 3-and-a half inch invisible rabbit. Jimmy Stewart made the role indelible in a 1950 film adaptation (and he played in the 1970 Broadway revival), as a serious, almost intense, Elwood P. Dowd. Now comes Parsons, giving us a happy-go-lucky Dowd, without a care in the world — unless it's for other people. He's a guileless guy who understands what happiness means. No wonder everyone calls him "peculiar."

That word could also define Mary Chase's 1944 play, a hit that lasted on Broadway more than four years. She wrote "Harvey" as an antidote to the stress, loss and violence of World War II and it's a perfect vehicle for escape — a strange play with a delicious ambiguity that allows us to side either with Dowd, believing there could be such a rabbit, or with reason, which tells us otherwise. And maybe even with both.

Chase wrote a tight plot with characters so richly defined, they could be played as real people or as cartoons, as most are in Scott Ellis' tidy Roundabout Theatre Company production. Ellis honors the play's smooth narrative arc with a seamless staging on David Rockwell's impressive set, which turns back and forth from Dowd's wood-paneled manse to a glaringly sterile sanitorium.

That's where his sister (Jessica Hecht, in a fun portrayal but with a semi-British, stagy accent that seems out of place) and his niece (Tracee Chimo) are trying to commit Dowd. They can't stand another day of embarrassment on behalf of this uncommonly ingratiating man who walks around town with an invisible rabbit. But in a turnabout, Dowd charms the shrinks (Morgan Spector and his boss, the fabulously fraying Charles Kimbrough), the sanitorium help (Holley Fain and Rich Sommer) and even the chief psychiatrist's wife (Carol Kane, who nails the small part). So the staff ends up committing Dowd's sister, who had come to seek his commitment.

It's good and often silly fun, greatly enriched by Parson's performance. His Dowd walks through life much like TV's late and beloved Mr. Rogers, with that same sort of googly twang, aw-shucks inflection, nonjudgmental manner and gentleness of spirit. (Mr. Rogers had some weird friends too, but not outside the TV studio.)

It's tempting to delve into the serious side of "Harvey," a play that mercilessly ridicules psychiatry, and to try to diagnose Dowd, just as people sometimes try to diagnose Parson's TV character. In addition, Harvey turns to the question of whether a miracle drug could change Dowd's behavior; in an age when overdiagnosing — and overmedicating — children with behavioral disorders is an ongoing issue, "Harvey" may acquire a new relevance.

Still, I'd like to think that it won't. "Harvey," and this production of it, is all for fun, and we might get into trouble by digging too deep. After all, we all have our own rabbits to deal with.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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"Harvey" is playing in a limited run, through August 5, at Studio 54, on 54th Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway, New York.

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