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Jim Parsons Is Preaching To The Choir

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When Jim Parsons walks on stage for his star turn as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, the audience applauds. There’s nothing unusual about that; luminaries are routinely given a hand upon their entrance. What’s unique is the enthusiasm with which Parsons is greeted; he is loved, before he even utters a word.

Parsons is best known as Dr. Sheldon Cooper on the hit series The Big Bang Theory. A master of comic timing and deadpan, Parsons has accomplished the neat trick of turning an obnoxious know-it-all into an endearing oddball. Sheldon levels a barrage of put-downs upon his longsuffering friends and colleagues, secure in the knowledge that his lofty intellect and eidetic memory have made him superior to most mere mortals. Parsons portrays him not as someone who is out to hurt others, but rather, as a child without a filter.

While Elwood P. Dowd is discernibly not a shade of Sheldon, Parsons again brings a childlike innocence to the role. In other hands, it could be creepy that Dowd is constantly asking strangers to come drink with him, and to dine at his home. When someone replies in the affirmative, Dowd immediately presses the issue with the question “When?” With Parsons in the role, you get a sense of a man who truly cares about others, and who actually wants to listen when someone else speaks.

Based on the play by Mary Chase, and made famous by the 1950 movie starring James Stewart, Harvey can be enjoyed on several different levels. It’s first and foremost a delightful comedy, although a bit old hat by modern day standards. It’s also a doorway to a dialogue. What is the essence of reality? What is family obligation? At what point do we realize that we must accept people we love for whom they are, not for whom we wish them to be? And, of course, what and how much do you have to drink before you can pal around with a 6 foot 3 ½ inch rabbit?

Harvey, Elwood explains, is actually a Pooka; these creatures from Celtic mythology are drawn to social outcasts. They’re mischievous, but benign. Why is someone as gentle and generous of spirit as Elwood considered too strange for regular company? For that matter, why does he drink so much? Tellingly, the habitués of Charley’s, his favorite saloon, are not fazed by Elwood’s eccentricity. No wonder he feels so comfortable there!

The play revolves around the attempts of Elwood’s sister Veta (Jessica Hecht), and his niece Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo), to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium, and the screw up that results in Veta herself being mistaken for the intended patient. As with most farces, the device grows wearisome after a while, especially since the audience so strongly sympathizes with Elwood.

There’s a distinct sweat factor, a pushing for laughs that ends up being more stressful than funny. Jessica Hecht, a fine actress, here simply goes too long on one frantic note. How much more believable it would be if she’s finally able to feel the relief of unburdening her “secret” to Dr. Sanderson (Morgan Spector). It would also be funnier; as it is, Veta is so overwrought, a dip in a therapeutic tub bath actually seems like a good idea.

There’s a glaring and unique problem with this production. Wilson, the orderly, is played by Rich Sommer, an actor who’s prominently featured on TV’s megahit Mad Men. Sommer is billed way below the title, in small letters. The result is that when he appears, a murmur sweeps through the house. “Hey, isn’t that the guy…” All willing suspension of disbelief is suspended.

I think this could have easily been solved by giving Sommer better billing, so that the spectators would have been forewarned. True, Sommer has very little stage, and no previous Broadway, experience. But except for the bafflingly out of proportion distress he exhibits over the disappearance of Dr. Chumley (Charles Kimbrough), he gives a fine performance.

As Dr. Chumley’s wife, Betty, Carol Kane makes a brief but refreshingly unforced appearance. Likewise, Larry Bryggman, is fetching in his plus-fours, and totally believable as a man who really just wants to get back to his golf game. Holley Fain is a stand-out as lovely Nurse Ruth Kelly; her appreciation of Elwood’s gallantry is pleasantly authentic, and of all those onstage, she seems most likely the one who would actually go to Charlie’s and have a great time.

The time period is somewhat confusing. Unless you read the program, there’s no way to know that this is supposed to be 1944, nor that we’re in Denver, Colorado. If I’d had to guess, I would have assumed East Coast, circa 1919. Having said that, the sets designed by David Rockwell are visually appealing, and admirably functional. A seamless turntable takes us from the brocaded walls, tufted chairs, and lace curtain of the old Dowd mansion to a modern and tastefully decked out mental facility. The Jane Greenwood costumes are, as always, pitch perfect.

Director Scott Ellis once again gives the audience an enjoyable theater experience, and one which should also bring in lots of tourist dollars. He knows he has a star in Jim Parsons, and Ellis wisely makes sure that Parsons has every opportunity to shine. Out-of-towners may buy tickets to see Sheldon, but they’ll leave having been entertained by a superb actor who’s earned his place as a respected member of the New York theater community.

Photos by Joan Marcus, from top:
Jessica Hecht and Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons
Tracee Chimo, Jessica Hecht, and Larry Bryggman
Jim Parsons, Jessica Hecht and Rich Sommer
Carol Kane and Jim Parsons

Harvey
Roundabout Theatre Company
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
Through August 5, 2012

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