Eldwood P. Dowd (Jim Parsons) must be the nicest character in American theater. Within a minute of being onstage, he has enthusiastically accepted two subscriptions to Lady’s Home Journal and Good Housekeeping and invited the telemarketer over to his home. Later, an elderly lady (Carol Kane), tells him that a Dr. McClure is having a party for his sister from Wichita. “I didn’t know Dr. McClure had a sister in Wichita,” he says with interest. “Oh—do you know Dr. McClure?” the lady asks. “No,” he replies, without any sense of having behaved unusually. And when his sister, Veta (Jessica Hecht), tries to have him committed to a sanatorium, he is not angry but simply admires her tenacity.
Jimmy Stewart, who played Elwood twice on Broadway as well as in the 1950 movie, was an obvious choice for the role. His calm and soothing demeanor, his earnest persona suit Elwood perfectly. Of course, there is more to Mr. Dowd than his Boy Scout charm. He is also an alcoholic mourning the loss of his mother as well as the best friend of the eponymous Harvey, a six foot one and a half-inch tall rabbit. Behind his pristine manners and his inexhaustible interest in strangers is a profound sadness, the melancholy of a little boy who has lost the only woman he has ever loved. His alcoholism and his insanity, the latter often providing fodder for the play’s comedy, is nevertheless destroying Veta and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo).
This new revival of Harvey fails because it does not tap into that sadness. Mr. Parsons is great when playing the eccentric bachelor, but his director, Scott Ellis, has not pushed him to tap into the depressive aspects of Mary Chase’s play. There is a gorgeous moment when Elwood describes his experiences in bars: “The faces of the other people turn towards mine and smile. They are saying, ‘We don’t know your name, Mister, but you’re a lovely fellow.’ … They tell about the big terrible things they have done. The big wonderful things they will do. Their hopes, their regrets, their loves, their hates. All very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.” This is an image and this is writing worthy of Harry Hope’s saloon. But where Jimmy Stewart could speak with both ecstasy and misery, Mr. Parsons only hits the comedic notes; he only plays the aloof and disconnected Elwood, all to the loss of the play’s power.
Granted, Harvey is no masterpiece anyway—and it has become particularly dated in its depiction of gender roles. Elwood insists on standing up until all ladies present are seated, calls them “my dear,” and chastises a doctor for not being more gentlemanly. In 1944, he may have struck an audience as refreshingly old-fashioned, but his gratuitous chivalry is now at best sickeningly cute and at worst supremely patronizing. His love interest, the nurse Ruth Kelly (Holley Fain), is rarely given a line that does not involve either praising Elwood or criticizing her “modern” and therefore ungallant boyfriend Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Morgan Spector).
Still, despite the play’s flaws, it would have been nice to see a more challenging Harvey. Mr. Parsons, after all, is an excellent actor; here, he—and the play—have been mishandled.