I'll confess that I looked forward to Harvey, that durable staple of community and summer theater, in much the same way I look forward to dental work or Jersey Shore. For much of the first scene – overacted to a fare-thee-well by the usually wonderful Jessica Hecht and Tracee Chimo – my worst fears were realized. But thanks to an endearing performance by Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons in the role made famous on stage and screen by Jimmy Stewart, the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of the Mary Chase comedy is three-quarters of a pleasure.
In case you were AWOL the week your high school staged it, the play, here nicely re-bundled to two acts from the customary three, centers on Elwood P. Dowd (Parsons), a guileless, beguiling tippler whose boon companion is an invisible 6’3“ white rabbit answering to the name Harvey. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Harvey is most certainly not invisible to Harvey. The two spend idyllic days and nights together – come to think of it, every day and every night – in the local watering holes where Elwood hoists more than a few, but never has to nurse a hangover. Perhaps it has something to do with his outlook on life. “I always have a wonderful time just where I am, whomever I’m with.” Here is a fellow who’s learned from experience. “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.”
Veta, who fairly vibrates with anxiety, adores her brother, is financially dependent on him, too. But this bunny business is putting the family in serious social jeopardy. How will Veta’s marriage-minded daughter Myrtle Mae (Chimo) ever find a husband with Elwood (and Harvey) around? Hence Veta’s decision to commit her brother to the sanitarium on the edge of town. Things do not work out quite as she had planned. So who’s truly crazy? And what price does sanity exact? These prove complicated questions.
Your tolerance for Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play depends to a large extent on your tolerance for whimsy and gentle, old-fashioned philosophizing. Parsons, whose Elwood is one part pixie, two parts pixilated, brings a wonderful fresh sense of conviction to it all. “As you grow older and pretty women pass you by,” he gently admonishes a psychiatrist in need of romantic guidance, “you will think with deep gratitude of those generous girls of your youth.” Charles Kimbrough is terrific as the rigid sanitarium director, who after an evening with Elwood and Harvey loses his moorings and his self-certainty. What wonderful things to lose.