nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
June 15, 2012
PBS recently commissioned a remix of that pied piper of children’s television, Mr. Rogers, singing about what he called the “Garden of Your Mind.” Its popularity (the video has gotten almost five million hits in under two weeks) is just more evidence that rumors of The Imagination’s death are greatly exaggerated. And if ever there was a champion of The Imagination—aside from Mr. Rogers—it would be Elwood P. Dowd, who can be found on stage at Studio 54 in the Roundabout’s sweet charmer of a production of Mary Chase’s Harvey.
The hero of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy (although he’s too modest and “pleasant” of a fellow to call himself that), Dowd spends his days hopping around town with his best friend Harvey. It just so happens that Harvey is a six-foot tall rabbit whom no one else can see. In point of fact, he’s actually six foot three and is also a pooka—a kind of spirit creature. Dowd lives with his sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae in their deceased mother’s grand house in 1944 Denver. In point of fact (yet again), they actually live with him, an important difference in that their mother left the estate to Dowd alone. Exasperated by Elwood’s behavior and fearful of Myrtle Mae’s impending spinsterhood because of it, Veta attempts to commit him to Chumley’s Rest, an outwardly dulcet if somewhat inwardly sinister sanatorium. Things, predictably, do not go as planned and everyone is soon hunting for Elwood and his leporine companion.
At one point, Elwood espouses, “I have wrestled with reality for 35 years…and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” As Elwood, Jim Parsons oozes that blissful nirvana of one who has decisively conquered his enemy and has no further battles on the horizon. His natural Southern accent is slightly off-putting at first given no one else seems to have one. But, soon it becomes clear that if Elwood seems to be from “somewhere else,” it’s because he is. The accent is just one more thing that sets him apart.
If Parsons is the calm eye at the center of the hurricane that Harvey creates, Jessica Hecht’s Veta and Charles Kimbrough’s William R. Chumley, M.D. are the Category 5-strength winds that surround it. Gloriously erratic, Hecht is the perfect picture of a woman unraveling, driven insane by another’s insanity. Witness her breathless relating of Elwood’s condition to the junior doctor at Chumley’s Rest. Kimbrough is equally adept at giving us the range of Chumley’s similar transformation. Watching his first act haughty ticks of derision transform into second act ticks of desperation is a master class in physical comedy and pure schadenfreude.
Some of the other casting choices are not as successful. Carol Kane is woefully disappointing as Chumley’s wife Betty. She falls back on the ditzy shtick that worked for her so well on Taxi and in films like Scrooged, but which feels forced and incongruous here. Betty has so little to do in the play and Kane—perhaps pushed by otherwise solid director Scott Ellis—seems to be trying to make more of a role of it than is there. Tracee Chimo is somewhat puzzling as Myrtle Mae, to no fault of her own. She attacks the part with vigor, but when standing side by side with him, looks to be Parsons’s sister rather than niece. This is mostly because Parsons is baby-faced and looks a full ten years younger than the 39 years he’s supposed to be. Nevertheless, while the age differences among Veta, Elwood, and Myrtle Mae are plausible, when the three appear together, there’s something off. And, it’s Chimo who stands out as the element that doesn’t belong.
Staged by Ellis on David Rockwell’s elegant, rotating set, the production is at its best when it gives into the play’s simplicity. There are moments when little bits of stage trickery undercut the audience’s imagination. Admittedly, I (purposely) didn’t read the play as I already hadn’t seen the 1950 film made from it and thought it best to see the story unfold surprisingly as intended. So I don’t know if the bits of trickery were originally written in, but, regardless, they weren’t needed. Part of the beauty of growing things in the Garden of Your Mind is that the world doesn’t need to see them for them to exist. It’s, as Elwood puts it, the difference between being smart and being pleasant. He says, “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” Thank you, Elwood.