The drama critic and wit Robert Benchley, a notable alcoholic, was allegedly once accosted by a well-meaning friend, who pointed at the drink in the humorist’s hand and said, “You know, that stuff is killing you slowly.” “So,” replied the imperturbable Benchley, “who’s in a hurry?” It’s conceivable that Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy, Harvey (Roundabout Studio 54), the most likeable defense of heavy drinking ever written, owes something to Benchley’s cheerfully sozzled, whimsical persona, on-screen and off. Her hero, Elwood P. Dowd (Jim Parsons), shares Benchley’s old-fashioned geniality and good manners, as well as his unfailing optimism, no matter what slapstick misadventures befall him.
But Elwood, unlike Benchley, leads a charmed life: Harsh mistreatment aimed for him tends to fall on others, most often his woebegone elder sister Veta (Jessica Hecht), who struggles vainly to bring him back to sobriety and the everyday world. And where Benchley’s take on reality was puckish and fantasticated—he allegedly once sent a cable home from Venice that read, “Streets full of water. Advise.”—Elwood is gifted with an unassuming yet relentless logic. Asked by conventionally polite souls if they can do something for him, he invariably replies, “What did you have in mind?” Admired by men and doted on by women, he views life as an infinitely delightful Ali Baba’s cavern, constantly revealing new treasures.
Yet Elwood has his dark side, too. When a sympathetic young shrink (Morgan Spector) mentions the birth trauma, Elwood responds gravely, “That’s the one we never get over.” Though a guaranteed nightly laugh, the old truism eerily links 1940s Broadway comedy to that other postwar phenomenon, Existentialism. “I do not forgive myself for being born,” wrote E.M. Cioran, friend and favored philosopher of Ionesco and Beckett, “[. . .] Yet in less certain moods, birth seems a calamity that I would be miserable not having known.” Who knew that Mary Chase could rank with the European intellectuals of her era?
Elwood, however, needs neither to face Cioran’s dark mystery of existence, nor to confront everyday life with Benchley’s flamboyant humor. He’s a realist who has taken leave of reality. His alcoholism has put him in touch with the alternative world of the supernatural, courtesy of his boon companion Harvey, the unseen title character. A pookah or mischievous sprite (the term comes from Celtic mythology) who appears to Elwood as a six-foot-tall white rabbit, Harvey riles and deranges others, particularly authority figures who try to mess with Elwood. He also, when the mood strikes him, predicts future events.
Common sense tells us Harvey doesn’t exist. But the play’s teasing use of stage trickery (doors that swing open unaided, books that slam themselves shut) to make us believe he does supplies the extra fillip that turns Elwood’s principled disconnect from normal life into bubbly comedy rather than somber philosophic meditation. Reviewing the original production, the novelist-critic Mary McCarthy, rarely an enthusiast for commercial Broadway ventures, praised Chase as the only current playwright “to find her inspiration in the theatre itself.” “I wrestled with reality most of my life,” Elwood tells the shrink, “and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.” He can get away with it because, unlike us, he’s a character in a play—a place where even the real world is only an illusion. His claim reads equally well as the playwright’s own declaration of aesthetic principle: In a theater that prided itself on its detailed realism, Chase’s plays all show dreams and fantasies impinging on reality.
Scott Ellis’s production, solid looking and solidly played, sensibly doesn’t try to push its luck in either the comic or the supernatural departments. Parsons, sweet-natured and discreet, makes an excellent Elwood; I wish he could add just the faintest touch of the tipsy lewdness that made Art Carney’s performance in the ’50s TV version such a delight. Hecht, an actress equipped for tragic roles, counters him wonderfully, giving Veta’s giddiness and desperation a firm emotional grounding. Tracee Chimo as her differently giddy daughter and Charles Kimbrough as the bumbling head of the sanitarium add whorls of delicious frosting to this tasty rum cake of a play, not the least bit stale, 68 years after its original director—woman named Antoinette Perry—first baked it for Broadway.