254 West 54th St.
Through August 5, $47-$140
Although the role of Elwood P. Dowd, a rather eccentric, happy fellow whose best friend is a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch-tall invisible pooka, is most closely associated with Jimmy Stewart, who was nominated for an Oscar for Henry Koster’s 1950 film adaptation and played the part in a 1970 Broadway revival with Helen Hayes, not many others have attempted to take on Dowd, the central figure in Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Harvey. The role was created by vaudevillian Frank Fay, and it has been played on the small screen by Art Carney and Harry Anderson. Now comes Emmy-winning actor Jim Parsons, the thirty-nine-year-old star of television’s The Big Bang Theory. Well, it might sound like blasphemy, but Parsons pulls off Dowd in a very big way, bringing a charm and gallantry that outshines even that of Stewart. The play as a whole, which famously topped Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie for the Pulitzer, does not hold up particularly well in Scott Ellis’s current Roundabout revival at Studio 54; it’s an old-fashioned piece of Americana fluff, its WWII-era sensibilities seriously out-of-date with the times (as opposed to Mike Nichols’s recent restaging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which was powerfully relevant). But Parsons is absolutely mesmerizing as Dowd, a well-mannered gentleman who is always accompanied by a large white rabbit that only he sees — but by the end of the play, you might think you’ve seen Harvey as well.
Elwood is an embarrassment to his sister, the society-obsessed Veta (Jessica Hecht, displaying a fine comic physicality), and her daughter, the socialite-in-training Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo). The ditzy Veta conspires to lock her brother away in a sanitarium run by Dr. William R. Chumley (Charles Kimbrough), but a misunderstanding between Veta, Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Morgan Spector), and nurse Ruth Kelly (Holley Fain) leads to some major foul-ups, some funnier than others. The relationship between Sanderson and Kelly falls particularly flat, as does a passionless attraction between Myrtle Mae and sanitarium worker Duane Wilson (Rich Sommer). Kimbrough is appropriately blustery as the exasperated Chumley, Carol Kane delivers a scene-stealing turn as his wife, Betty, and Larry Bryggman is stalwart as Judge Omar Gaffney. But the play takes off whenever Parsons is onstage, as Elwood makes friends with everyone he meets, including telephone solicitors, hands out his card to strangers, and is always quick to at least try to introduce his best friend, which doesn’t always work out quite as he plans. He has a penchant for reaching out and touching people in an engaging way, both physically and verbally, a supremely gentle man who also likes his drink. But whereas Stewart played Elwood as a wide-eyed, melodramatic dreamer, Parson’s Elwood is a more down-to-earth character, although still lost in his own alternate reality. Yet it’s a welcoming alternate reality that is a pleasure to be a part of in these often maddening, fast-paced times.