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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Harvey — Walnut Street Theatre

harvey -- interiorHarvey, the towering — 6’3″…and a half — invisible rabbit in Mary Chase’s durable 1944 play, is a survivor. He outlasts Veta Louise Simmons’s plot to have him exorcised from the otherwise comfortable Midwest home she shares with her brother and daughter. He overcomes the doubt and ridicule heaped on people who claim to be able to see him. He cheers yearning soul after yearning soul in series for what seems like it might be eternity.

“Harvey,” Chase’s actual play, is also a survivor that has remained a repertory favorite for 72 years and has been made into a wonderful 1950 movie starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull.

When Ellie Mooney minced on stage as Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae, I feared Chase’s reliable chestnut might not get through the evening at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Mooney, who is also generally reliable, affects a walk that doesn’t look human or fitting for Myrtle Mae’s character. Her dainty running steps say “cartoon” and “character” rather than depicting what should be a slightly awkward debutante who is intent on meeting, and marrying, a man. Some man. Any man.

An actress can give Myrtle Mae eccentricities. Chase and script adapter Ken Ludwig suggest enough neurotic traits for her.

But Mooney goes overboard. She looks as if she’s trying to be Lucy, but what she’s doing isn’t funny or effective. It’s just strange.

Her Myrtle Mae has authentic comic moments when Mooney stumbles, sometimes literally, on a bit that works, for instance her take when Veta asks her to look into a crowded parlor to see if Harvey is there, a command she follows through with obedient alacrity before she does a double take and checks her action upon realizing no one can see Harvey. He’s invisible.

Gaffes unfortunately outnumber strokes of brilliance in Mooney’s performance, the self-conscious outlandishness of which almost scuttles Bob Carlton’s production.

Then Mary Martello enters as Veta, and although she is also mannered and stylized, Martello is a pro who, like Harvey, can overcome any sabotage and conquer the day.

She brings Carlton’s production into focus and finds a nice, satisfying middle ground between chewing the scenery and presenting a credible character, but the size of the performance and the exaggerated takes, pearl-toned utterances, and physical bits makes you wonder if this “Harvey” is going to thwart Martello’s wealth of magic and be more an exercise in overwrought comedy than in storytelling.

Susan Riley Stevens’s entrance as Veta’s ancient, irascible aunt, doesn’t slake that fear. Once again, it looks like overdoing and making characters artificial and flamboyant is to be the rule. Especially since Stevens is usually a master of understatement and vocal subtlety. Even a hat that Chase has Myrtle say looks like a Native American artifact leads to costumer Mark Mariani, another known for his consistent quality, overembellishing said item in a way that makes you question Carlton’s taste and how much you’re going to be able to take of his ladled-on preciousness. The wig under the hat is also de trop.

Ironically, things looks up, and I mean way up, way way up, when Ben Dibble, whose character can get away with excess and eccentricity, enters as Elwood P. Dowd, the rich man-about-town who has befriended Harvey, or vice versa, and has no compunction about introducing him to his friends and, more nerve-rackingly, his sister’s friends. He even manages to nonplus his elderly, and adoring, aunt.

Chipper and grinning with gleeful esprit as he hands out calling cards with a corrected telephone number, Dibble is the embodiment of a happy, sociable man. With small gestures, and that grin, he establishes Elwood as a character you like, want to believe, and want to protect. The gregariousness Elwood is said to have as he entertains random people in the town’s taverns and restaurants imbues and informs everything about Dibble’s being, from his stance to the way he handles his, and Harvey’s, hats. (You know which is Harvey’s because it has slits cut in to accommodate his ears.) You understand why even strangers would enjoy having a drink or meal with him.

Dibble, if anything, brings a needed calmness and normality to the production. Martello and Stevens respond to it immediately and moderate some of the bloated acting they’re doing. Mooney is incorrigibly beyond help, but she has enough illuminating work under belt, including her recent turn in the Walnut’s “A Christmas Story,” that she can be indulged on this occasion. Whining, simpering, mincing and all.

The Walnut “Harvey” flows enjoyably once Dibble sets a new tone and pace. You can get into and even begin to sympathize with Veta for being prevented from entertaining her friends at home, as is her wont, or with Myrtle for despairing about ever finding a suitable husband, as long as Elwood so blithely and ingenuously includes Harvey in every party and social gathering.

Veta is afraid of the talk, the gossip, but Elwood isn’t, and neither are we. Harvey’s presence, even if it’s imaginary seems harmless enough. Elwood, and even Harvey, seem much less a social liability than Mooney’s creepily high-strung Myrtle Mae, a being no one but her mother would tolerate for 40 seconds.

As “Harvey” proceeds, you encounter more that upsets and more that soothes you. The production has a distinct push-me, pull-you way about it.

Based on several total performances, and parts of others, it’s clear that Carlton encouraged folderol and overacting among his cast. Dibble seems immune to the extravagance and hyperbole of antics, but Carlton seems to have asked each of his actors to come up with a tic or some bit of physical or facial shtick that would get an old-fashioned vaudeville-style yuk from the Walnut Street crowd.

Mooney, it appears, just became a little too creative because Ian Merrill Peakes, as a consulting psychiatrist, and H. Michael Walls, as a judge and the Simmons/Dowd family attorney, also mitigate their performances with inflated and overstated “business.” Peakes seems to be in the same cartoon as Mooney, given the speed of his speech and his hand gestures, especially when he bangs his desk for emphasis. Even Greg Wood, as the head of a sanitorium in which Veta wants Elwood to be committed, gives up his blessedly straightforward, and therefore more subtly and assuredly comic approach to his role, to go into an occasional Marx Brothers routine or employ some unexpectedly farcical gesture.

Huh? What? Why? Dibble, and a reformed Martello, who maintains a large performance but finds the human, and comic, core in it, are keeping “Harvey” funny and charming by letting Chase’s material do the heavy lifting and being whimsical or correctly Margaret Dumont about their performances. (Jack O’Hare as Harvey is superb!) They keep “Harvey” a play and prevent it from descending into a mindless romp. Stevens also recovers from her Act I, Scene III hamming and scores better by being recognizably human as the sanitorium owner’s wife. The best performances in the production, the ones akin to Dibble’s and Martello’s, are given by Lauren Sowa, as a sanitorium assistant who is so sane and conventional you want to run on stage and kiss her for having the ability to be in the spirit of Carlton’s circus without losing her wits and mugging or overgesticulating to be part of it, and Dan Olmstead, who builds his character’s size and average Joe attitude into a beautifully hilarious turn that allows for shtick but keeps it within the boundaries of his part and of good, solid comedy. Olmstead’s offhand, but believably within character, line delivery is top-notch.

Harvey -- interior 2Who you’re watching at a given moment, and who might be acting out instead of acting for a purpose, makes a difference in how much you enjoy Carlton’s production.

I have to admit I wavered. At intermission, I was prepared to write all off as a misguided carnival that made no distinction between the organically big and raucous and the lighter, more whimsical comedy Chase supplies in “Harvey.”

“Harvey,” after all, is not a farce. It’s a clever situation comedy, one, like Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which the Walnut produced last season, that even has moments of archness, sophistication, and satire that need a smarter, more delicate treatment to come to the fore.

Luckily, because I was really enjoying Dibble’s work, admiring Martello and Wood, and marveling at Sowa’s fortitude and discipline in the midst of much gratuitous mayhem, and because the heart of “Harvey” eventually shined through, I left the theater satisfied and thinking the Walnut did a good job with Chase’s piece. In the long run, excesses could not kill “Harvey.” The best part of Chase’s work emerged and saved the day. That best part, since it centered mostly around Dibble, Wood, and Martello, provided a warmth and, yes, a sanity, that overcame the chaos and wrong-headed histrionics the opening scenes seemed so frighteningly to promise. Chase is making fun of people who believe they are the cream of society. She’s looking at them with her tongue in her cheek, but she’s not lampooning them. Martello gets it right by endowing her Veta with equally comic and sympathetic traits. Fran Prisco provides a naturally comic performance as a cab driver who doesn’t mind taking passengers to the sanitorium but loathes taking them home.

As the lights go down on the production, “Harvey” wins you again, and its does so honestly. Its victory could only be based on you caring about what happens to Elwood and Veta. That victory is sweeter to behold considering all Dibble and Wood, in particular, must overcome to make Chase’s play more than a silly flapdoodle.

Which it is not. “Harvey” speaks for the harmless habits, or quirks, or even anomalies that please an individual while doing no harm to anyone else. Or to society, for all the Puritans, self-righteous, and politically correct might gripe.

In the end, Chase makes a case for live-and-let-live, and Dibble delivers the anthem that expresses that with bright but pointed clarity and heart. The actor shows Elwood have such a good time, and being so accommodating and considerate, he makes you want a Harvey for yourself. That rabbit seems to be joyful and stimulating company.Although Harvey has strong opinions and rankles people at times.

One of the things Chase does with genius is make you buy into Harvey, and his physical existence as a friend to Elwood, right away. You are always against Veta taking steps to remove Elwood, or Harvey, from the wider world by having him shut away, and subjected to antediluvian treatment, by current standards, at a sanitorium.

I wondered briefly why Carlton did not move “Harvey’s” setting to today’s times. But elements such as afternoon social gatherings, influential society columns, long walks to the outskirts of a town, the level of psychiatry depicted in the play, including shock treatment, and the constant use of a fixed -positioned telephone would make a contemporary setting impossible. Unintentionally, “Harvey” shows you how much the everyday world has changed in 75 years.

“Harvey” works best when Dibble, Martello, or Olmstead is commanding the stage. Sowa provides a welcome touch of reality and the gratifying realization that someone in “Harvey” is level-headed, sensible, and able to sort out the mayhem that ensues. Sowa exudes such reasonableness as the nurse, you half forget that her character is the catalyst for the play’s major subplot, one in which the nurse mistakes Veta for the patient and Elwood for the one who wants to commit a sibling to the sanitarium.

I’m glad to see the charm, adorability, and winsomeness of the production triumphed over its wayward extremes. Some scenes, particularly the one in which Peakes blows a fuse while reacting to Sowa’s confusion about Elwood and Veta, require some real patience to get through. They are that overblown. Thanks to Dibble, Martello, and O’Hare the basic fun of “Harvey” comes through, and the play and Carlton’s production are salvaged.

For anyone who has managed to miss “Harvey” in its various incarnations from Frank Fay through Jimmy Stewart to Jim Parsons, Chase’s play is about a man, who is at leisure after coming into a grand inheritance but who lives discontentedly until he encounters a 6’3″ rabbit, invisible to most, beside a lamppost. The man, Elwood P. Dowd, goes to no length to hide his friendship and is perfectly comfortable  refer to or introducing the rabbit, his pooka, or invisible friend. Of course, people think Elwood is mad for fabricating such an unusual imaginary friend. His sister and niece come from another city to live with Elwood and are particularly alarmed about having to share a domicile with Harvey. The sister, Veta, complains she cannot be the doyenne she wants to me if Elwood is going to circulate among her guests and awaken them to the charms of Harvey. The niece, Myrtle, just wants to meet a man so she can become a society matron. At wit’s end, although it’s hard in Carlton’s production to see that Myrtle has any wits, Veta calls a judge and arranges for Elwood to be committed to Dr. Chumley’s sanitorium on the outskirts of town. Elwood doesn’t know what he’s complying to when he meets Veta at Chumley’s, but things go comically, and entertainingly, awry, especially when a nurse picks out Veta as the loony requiring commitment. Romance blooms between the nurse and Chumley’s assistant and between Myrtle and Chumley’s burly ward attendant. By the time committing Elwood to the sanitorium is broached, Ben Dibble has made us like Elwood and his relationship with Harvey. Psychiatry, the law, and tolerance for the harmless eccentric are part of the play. Carlton may overdirect some physical comedy, but he is quite clever at showing us Harvey is corporeal and by Elwood’s side,

Robert Koharchik’s set from Veta and Elwood’s drawing room is sumptuous. I am thinking of putting in a bid for the royal blue club chairs that anchor that set. Koharchik’s design for the sanitarium reception area is also clever. I especially liked the way he halved a wide, arched staircase and turned the stage left section into a bookcase. It’s eye-catching.

Mark Mariani’s ensemble for the aunt aside, the costumes were true to the period and fun. I enjoyed the way Mariani mixed things by giving Elwood a light-colored coat and brown hat and Harvey a dark coat with a light hat. Choices for Veta were perfect.

“Harvey” runs through Sunday, March 6, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6. No 7 p.m. shows are set for Sundays, Fen. 21 or March 6. Tickets range from $85 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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