Can a six foot tall white rabbit who most people can’t even see be one of the most welcomed presences on Broadway this summer? After seeing the Roundabout Theatre Company’s delightful revival of the 1944 Mary Chase Pulitzer Prize winning classic Harvey, I can emphatically say yes. Most people know Harvey thanks to the Jimmy Stewart movie, and Stewart even appeared in the last Broadway revival, in 1970, co-starring with Helen Hayes. Some might have wondered how a comedy almost seventy years old holds up, but that is never an issue. The Roundabout production proves that Harvey still provides a sparkling evening of pure entertainment.
The revival stars Jim Parsons, best know for his television work in The Big Bang Theory. Parsons made an impressive Broadway debut last season, playing a supporting role in the superb production of The Normal Heart. In Harvey, he is Elwood P. Dowd, the eccentric, quirky, but exceedingly affable lead character who enjoys a drink at the local pub and whose best friend is the aforementioned Harvey. Parsons has a great stage presence. He has some of Stewart’s folksiness, and his Elwood is a mix of innocence, optimism, calm, kindness, and sincerity. His “give and take” with the unseen Harvey, reacting to comments of other characters, is particularly amusing. Elwood is truly a generous spirit, and Parsons, like the play itself, proves to be totally endearing and quite funny. While Harvey is not a non stop collection of laughs, there are some scenes that are totally hilarious. For those who have never seen the play or movie, Elwood’s sister, Vita Louise, feels she has no choice but to put Elwood in a sanitarium. When she takes Elwood to the Chumley sanitarium, the doctor, hearing Vita Louise talking about Harvey, thinks she is the person who should be committed; plenty of delicious wackiness ensues from there. The play’s overall mix of humor, warmth, wistfulness, and sweetness proves irresistible and even touching.
Parsons gets strong support in this production. Jessica Hecht is a riot as the exasperated Vita Louise. She is younger than many previous performers in that role. Helen Hayes was seventy when she played Vita Louise in the revival, and Josephine Hull was even a little older when she did the movie. Hecht is forty-seven, thus a more vital and less matronly Vita Louise; it works just fine. Broadway veteran Charles Kimbrough is hilarious as the pompous Dr. Chumley. Carol Kane appears in just one scene but gets big laughs as Chumley’s daffy wife. The rest of the cast (which also includes Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, making his Broadway debut as the sanitarium attendant, Duane) is equally fine. Director Scott Ellis directs at a brisk pace and with a light, witty touch.
All in all, Parsons and the play combine to provide a totally winning, charming entertainment, with moments of priceless hilarity. It is a complete delight, and both Harvey the rabbit and Harvey the play brighten the Broadway summer theater scene.