By Philip Pearce
Since his Broadway debut almost exactly 70 years ago, Elwood P. Dowd (“Let me give you one of my cards”) has become an icon of American theatrical comedy. He’s the lovable, boozy hero of Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy Harvey. That’s the name of Elwood’s best friend and regular companion. The trouble is, nobody (or almost nobody) but Elwood can see Harvey, a sprite the Celts call a “pooka,” whom he introduces to everyone he meets as a sociable six-foot one and a half inch white rabbit. Harvey and Elwood are a continuing threat to Elwood’s two housemates, his adoring but socially frustrated sister Veta Louise Simpson and his resentful and disapproving niece Myrtle Mae.
Never mind the conflicts. Starting as a puzzling and eccentric nuisance, the benign and pixilated Elwood leaves us wondering two hours later if that big white rabbit really has been with us all evening.
Jeff Heyer brings a sweetness and a conviction to the part in a new production at the Western Stage Studio Theater. Unlike some actors who’ve taken on Elwood, he has the intelligence and insight to know that Dowd is no dozy bubblehead. Sure, he lives in a world of his own, but Chase suggests it may be better than the one the rest of us inhabit. It’s a relaxed but orderly, gracious and sometimes disturbingly literal world. If you casually suggest you might get together with Elwood some time, he brings out his pocket calendar and asks “When?” When a lady he’s just met inquires, “How may I help you?” he replies, “What did you have in mind?” His prescription for any problem is for everybody to slip out and talk it through over drinks at nearby Charlie’s Bar. Any production of the play stands or falls on the childlike directness and believability of this character. Watching Heyer, you understand how and why Elwood P. Dowd remains the pivotal personality in an American comedy classic.
One challenge of a classic, of course, is that after three quarters of a century it tends to get set in a mold. Production companies try to recapture details handed down from traditions of the original Broadway hit or the popular James Stewart movie. Always on the lookout for a new approach, I was interested right from the opening lines that Western Stage takes a different look at some parts of old familiar theatrical territory.
Elwood’s sister Veta is an example. Traditionally, she’s played as an anxious and confused suburban frump. TWS offers her as a stylishly dressed, smoothly coiffed suburban socialite, anxious but no way dowdy. And it sometimes works well. Arlene Nissen is certainly the angriest and most focused of the four previous Vetas I’ve seen. That attitude makes sense in her battles to snatch back her social life by getting rid of the ever present Harvey. But in other areas of the role, it’s not as effective. Nissen seems so organized and coherent that it’s hard to believe the staff of Chumley’s Rest, the local mental hospital, would decide, even briefly and mistakenly, that she is insane. And it’s a bit of a stretch to accept her, in the final moments of the play, as being nearly as charmingly cuckoo as her brother.
Her daughter Myrtle Mae, who heartlessly masterminds efforts to get her Uncle Elwood locked up in Chumley’s Rest, is usually portrayed as an acid-tongued and vindictive wallflower. It’s a refreshing change to watch the perky and attractive Amanda Schemmel turn her into, well, a perky but attractive chronic whiner.
William J. Wolak, one of this area’s finest directors, seems to have allowed the resourceful Heyer to set the pace of any scene where he’s the key figure. The sequence where Elwood charms the sanitarium director’s wife Betty into taking messages to the absent Harvey is delightful because Pat Horsley plays Betty with her accustomed verve and skill, and because both she and Heyer know how to point a line of dialogue in a way that reveals character and at the same time advances the story.
But when Elwood is off-stage or not the focus of attention, Wolak and his hard-working cast act as though Harvey were a fast-paced, loud-voiced farce, and it doesn’t work all that well. Except for the zany first act sequence where Veta instead of Elwood gets committed to the sanitarium, Harvey just doesn’t make for very good farce. The script has too many moments of reflection and conversation to fit into the close confines of physical farce, where the humor depends on ridiculous situations. The humor in Harvey is about the collisions and interplay of characters. We don’t laugh at what happens to these people, more often than not off stage. We laugh at their quirky and surprising responses to what happens to them. The funny bits aren’t people running through doors shouting exit lines or slamming down props to punctuate their dialogue. The laughs come from watching them confront some puzzling questions about what’s real and what isn’t. Too many of these character elements got skimmed over or rushed past the night I watched the show.
When Nissen as Veta admits to dynamic young Dr. Sanderson at the sanitarium (the forceful Chris Deacon) that “sometimes even I see that big white rabbit,” it’s significant evidence that Elwood’s daftness is probably part of the Dowd clan DNA, including Veta’s. Performed as just another piece of quick dialogue and response, it races past us, as do plot points like the fact that Myrtle Mae is already arranging the transformation of her uncle’s house into profitable rental apartments almost before he’s even been admitted to Chumley’s Rest.
The message Elwood and Mary Chase offer isn’t a hurried one: it says you need to take time out to get in touch with your inner pooka, or you’ll end up as just another human being and, in the words of Dan Tate’s reflective taxi driver, “you know what bastards they are.”
Apart from his sister, Elwood’s only convert to his sentimental philosophy of life is the sanitarium’s head practitioner Dr. William Chumley, played with wonderful bluster and bounce throughout Act 1 by Rocco Tavani. But in Act 2, after an unexpected pub crawl with Elwood and Harvey, Chumley returns to his hospital a changed man. Chase gives him a monologue which brings to the surface Chumley’s own repressed pooka in the form of an imaginary Akron, Ohio dream girl who shares a fantasy camp site and strokes his head whispering “Poor man, poor man.” The speech is one of the best written in the play. We see the scary, loud-mouth boss man of the local loony bin transformed for a few precious moments into a dreamy, vulnerable mensch. But Tavani strains to play it all for broad comedy and it turns out neither wistful as intended by the author nor funny as intended by the actor.
The Western Stage Harvey has a stellar lead-performance and a cast which moves it along at a lively and entertaining clip. But some of the values that earned the play a Pulitzer Prize get lost in all that race for pace.