Anyone of the mindset that Harvey is a creaky, old piece of theater that should be happily left behind in a bygone era when caricatures and stiff, unnatural dialog ruled the American boards need go no further than the current revival at Studio 54 to find irrefutable proof for this argument. Given a push into the theatrical grave that it didn't need by some dreadful directing, this piece was dead on arrival despite the concerted efforts of some good actors.
Written in a time when publicly addressing the issue of alcoholism, even in a comical manner, was edgy, Harvey has long since outlived any daring it may have once danced around and is left primarily with the character of Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood is a character that is most commonly associated with Jimmy Stewart's portrayal in the 1950 film version, making for a tough act to follow, but Jim Parsons (of The Big Bang Theory fame) does a respectable job of putting his own stamp on the part while maintaining the steady likability that is closely coupled with Stewart.
Parsons returns to the Broadway stage after his promising début in last year's gripping production of The Normal Heart, once again proving the theatrical origins of his acting abilities. Playing the drunk more in references to drinking and his DT buddy, Parsons keeps Elwood light and in a perpetual haze of happiness that joins the script in shying away from any ugly realities. His timing is deceptively relaxed, hitting jokes on cue without laboring their deliveries, as his demeanor is at ease and his personality pleasing. Jessica Hecht works the rusty dialog well, breathing in humor where fitting and doing her best to manage with some odd directorial choices. Carol Kane makes an odd and brief appearance in the minor role of Betty Chumley, playing with her usual quirks of personality, but this time with off-putting results. Charles Kimbrough is the pompous, acclaimed medical professional shaken by the appearance of Elwood's friend (with entertaining facial tics borrowed from the late Rudy Vallee), Rich Sommer plays a loveable tough type, Larry Bryggman is a respectable judge, and Tracee Chimo gives a performance that even a gifted director couldn't save. The characters are all written primarily as types, so they are played as such, but the extreme degree to which this is played to stems from the faulty direction of Scott Ellis.
Ellis seems at a loss for what to do with this regrettably dated play, so instead of punching it up with a contemporary tempo, he dials it down in an ill-advised, retrogressive style. The actors dutifully execute his stale direction, playing the caricatures to their nearsighted limits while moving at the deathly pace he establishes, which is slow enough to allow gaps for the Q Train to pass through as it rattles beneath the theater at amusing intervals. Ellis's pace is lethal and strikingly incompetent given the overall high production quality of this professionally comprised shell that lacks the meaningful innards that would make it art.
Choosing to revive a play as antiquated as Harvey is odd, but once that choice has been made there is always something that can be done with it through the gifts of imagination and ingenuity. But while the cast members do their part in calling upon these much-needed muses, Ellis fails them so greatly as to render the production beyond salvation. Television-born fans of Jim Parsons will not be disappointed by his performance, but are not likely to become enamored with the magic of the theater as is there is little of it in this production. - C. Jefferson Thom
Studio 54 on Broadway is at 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan.
This is a limited engagement through August 5, 2012.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.