The promotional campaign for “Harvey,” the Roundabout’s genial revival of the 1944 farce about a man and his “imaginary” rabbit friend, prominently features the show’s lead, Jim Parsons, on a mostly blank background. The play has been touted as the first Broadway starring role for the irrepressible Emmy winner from “The Big Bang Theory.”
That depiction is somewhat misleading, however, for “Harvey” is a true ensemble piece that relies on a pack of quirky characters. Not that Parsons doesn’t turn in a likable, solid performance as Elwood P. Dowd. Yet it’s the supporting players that give the show its oomph.
The openly gay actor, who made his Broadway debut in “The Normal Heart” last year, delivers his lines with the clipped, deadpan panache his “Big Bang” fans love. But as a loony, delusional man who pushes his frazzled sister, Veta (Jessica Hecht), and his tetchy niece, Myrtle Mae (Tracee Chimo), to the brink of insanity with his constant banter with the invisible Harvey (described as standing over six feet tall), Parsons lacks some of the impish charm that makes his TV geek so endearing.
The eccentric role, steeped in innocent bluntness and relying on physical comedy, seems tailor-made for him — surely Elwood and Sheldon are cut from the same cloth. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
As written by Mary Chase, the role demands that Parsons play the straight man –– even keeled, slightly robotic, and evolving very little. Although unmarried at age 39, this queer uncle is not gay, for as directed by Scott Ellis, it’s clear his affections for the pretty nurse (Holley Fain) go well beyond the niceties that he extends to everyone else (he hands out his card to perfect strangers and insists on setting a date for drinks).
Parsons, who also happens to be 39, is not only competing with his Sheldon persona, but also with the ghost of Jimmy Stewart, who had pretty much owned the Elwood role for over half a century. Stewart portrayed him in the original Broadway production, again in the beloved 1950 film, and reprised the role on Broadway in 1970.
As I see it, the talented Jessica Hecht deserves to be alongside Parsons on the cover of the “Harvey” Playbill. Her Veta is a bundle of nerves that comes undone in the most astonishing ways. No matter how outlandish her character gets, Hecht steers clear of caricature so we still identify with Veta’s predicament. When she tries to commit her brother to the sanitarium — a cruel plan, to be sure — we can’t really blame her.
In recounting the mix-up at the sanitarium, where the authorities tried to commit Veta instead of Elwood, she says of the orderly (played by Rich Sommer from “Mad Men”), “He took me upstairs and took my clothes off,” shuddering with a giddy mixture of horror and delight.
Also perking up the proceedings are Charles Kimbrough (of “Murphy Brown” fame) as Dr. Chumley, head psychiatrist at the sanitarium; Carol Kane, as his batty wife; and Morgan Spector, as the devilishly handsome doctor in charge of admissions.
The production is lifted by David Rockwell’s shrewd set design, which toggles back and forth between the grand, overstuffed library of the Dowd estate and the clean, calm sterility of the sanitarium, called Chumley’s Rest.
I’m guessing the frothy comedy won the Pulitzer and ran for four years because it actually touches on some delicate themes, like the permeable divide between sanity and psychosis. But also because it offered a pleasant diversion from the harsh realities of World War II by celebrating the triumph of the human spirit and believing in dreams.
As “Harvey” suggests, perhaps Elwood has the right idea by indulging in fantasy and it’s the rest of us who are mad. When the cabbie remarked just before Elwood was to receive an injection to cure his behavior, “Lady, after this, he’s gonna be a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are!” the audience burst into applause.
The appeal of this witty American classic (or creaky old chestnut) depends on how much you are willing to believe in Harvey. Apparently, many theatergoers, swept up in the magic, saw him plain as day and jumped to their feet, squealing with delight at the curtain call. I found myself squinting to see that silly rabbit, scratching my head, amused but bewildered.
HARVEY | Studio 54 | Roundabout Theater Company | 254 W. 54th St. |Through Aug. 5 | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $37-127 | roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300