Comedy can be deadly. Just a few directorial misjudgments and uh-oh, sudden death: forced laughs, desperate thesps, and an aud growing surlier by the minute. Something like that has befallen the Roundabout’s revival of “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a lovable man (memorably played by James Stewart in the 1951 movie) whose best friend is a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. Jim Parsons aims to charm the pants off us by giving Elwood P. Dowd an air of sweet serenity. But the vacancy behind his bland facial expressions has a chilling effect.
Roundabout always likes to look good, so the design of Scott Ellis’ production is impeccable — just as good as, and maybe better than, the period authenticity he achieved in the revival of “Twelve Angry Men.”
David Rockwell’s set of the book-lined drawing room of an elegant Victorian mansion conveys exactly the sense of financial security and social solidity you’d expect to find in the home of a well-off family living in Denver, Colo., in 1944. And while Jane Greenwood’s costumes are visually witty (what hats!), the detail work gives them validity.
Contemporary attention spans being what they are, it’s hard to fault the production for the feeling that the play’s first scene goes on forever. But exposition wasn’t a dirty word back in the playwright’s more leisurely day, and we really need to know that Elwood (Jim Parsons), his late mother’s sole heir and the master of this grand house, is “the biggest screwball in town.”
Elwood’s best friend is an imaginary rabbit named Harvey, and his insistence on introducing his “friend” to everyone in town has made social pariahs of his social-climbing sister, Veta (Jessica Hecht, not bad but biding her time until her triumphant turn in the second act), and Veta’s nasty daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo, so good in “Bachelorette” but way, way over the top here).
The first scene, set in the sanitarium where Veta goes to have Elwood committed, also gets off to a slow start, lumbered by more drawn-out exposition and a stiff perf from Morgan Spector as the stuffy psychiatrist who admits them. But the farce finally kicks in when Veta goes to pieces trying to explain the strain she’s been under (a brilliant breakdown from Hecht) and is locked up as a loony. Parsons also makes good in this scene by executing some deft comic maneuvers after Elwood is set loose and allowed to roam the sanitarium with Harvey.
The nuttier the farce becomes, in fact, the better this show is.
Charles Kimbrough is insanely funny as the head of the psychiatric clinic who goes chasing after his runaway ward and is won over by Harvey. As the doctor’s downhearted wife, Carol Kane steals the scene in which Elwood charms her with his kindness and beautiful manners. And Angela Paton brightens the first act as a wealthy society matron who does a classic double-take when Elwood introduces her to his imaginary friend.
Wherever they happened to have wandered in terms of performance styles, the company pulls itself together in the final scene, when scribe Chase quits being facetious and makes her serious point that “perfectly normal human beings” are, in fact, nasty people — and that however eccentric Elwood may seem to the “normal” people in the world, he’s a lot happier than they are.
Cue the audience cheers.