For decades, the New York stage has been haunted by a large, looming specter associated with the play Harvey. No, I’m not talking about the invisible, 6 ft. 3 1/2" rabbit who becomes the central focus of protagonist Elwood P. Dowd—I mean Jimmy Stewart, perhaps the most beloved American film actor of them all, who created one of his signature roles in the 1950 screen adaptation of Mary Chase’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winner. So massive has been his shadow that the only person ever to attempt the role on Broadway since the film was released was Stewart himself, in 1970.
Give the Roundabout Theatre Company, then, credit for audacity. But you can’t leave it at that. After all, Adam Sandler was audacious enough to remake a film he shouldn’t have been allowed near: Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. No, also give the Roundabout credit for not mucking around with a play that didn’t need much fixing to begin with—and to hire a name actor with enough talent to make Elwood P. Dowd all his own without doing violence to the script or our memories.
Casting Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory might be considered a box-office hedge, but that didn’t make it bullet- (or critic-) proof. Amazingly, Parsons makes nary a misstep here. The rest of the cast is fine (sometimes exceptionally so), but without a fine Elwood, the center cannot hold. Fortunately, Parsons has made this sturdily constructed comedy (Chase rewrote it 50 times) a candidate for revival again. The Ghost of Jimmy Stewart can rest easy.
Parsons’ Elwood may have begun as a gentle tippler, but by the time the play begins, the character has gone way past permanent pickledom to what the Sixties generation longed to achieve but never quite got: permanent bliss. It is certainly not done without conscious effort, though: Watch the way Parsons seizes with an almost palpable hunger on stray acquaintances’ nonchalant offers to meet again someday (“How about right now?”), or the suddenly quiet reminiscence of a major realization in his life (“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ - she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”)
Scott Ellis has directed the proceedings with the same deft touch he showed with such other productions as Twelve Angry Men, Arthur Miller’s early, underrated The Man Who Had All the Luck, and The Rainmaker. In all of these, he spun gold from properties long believed to be outdated—and he has performed the same magical resuscitation act here. He has knit together the current show from three sources: Chase's original script, Stewart's 1950 film, and a version shown as part of The DuPont Show of the Month in 1958, with Art Carney as Elwood.
Mention should also be made of David Rockwell, who has done more than simply create what the script calls for: a home and mental institution for the well-heeled. Look closely and you’ll see a great visual gag that reinforces the show’s hilarious brand of whimsy: nearly 90 stuffed rabbits, all over the stage. All the solidity of established wealth and the medical establishment is made to give way before the indomitable force of imagination.
That’s the kind of light touch present so much in this show. Parsons’ clever star turn could have obliterated everyone here. Instead, the supporting players also receive their opportunity to shine, notably Tracee Chimo as Elwood’s superficial, boy-crazy niece; Rich Sommer (of Mad Men) as Wilson, the swaggering institution orderly; Charles Kimbrough and Carol Kane, as, respectively, the head of Chumley’s Rest and the wife whose inner goofiness is unleashed by Elwood; and Jessica Hecht as Elwood’s sister Veta, haunted not so much by the prospect of committing her sweet-tempered but reality-challenged brother but by the fear that “Harvey”—the mischievous pooka of Celtic legend—might, in fact, be real after all, because she thinks she sees him.
The production of Dracula starring Frank Langella 35 years ago should have driven a stake through the notion that nobody should ever risk comparison with an iconic performance. Catch Parsons before this show closes at the Roundabout's Studio 54 on August 5—and, if you can’t make it, hope that, like Stewart (who took over for the original lead, Frank Fay), he’ll see fit to reenact his stage triumph for the large (or at least small) screen.