Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
When the curtain rises, Veta Louise Simmons (Mary Martello) and her hopelessly awkward daughter Myrtle Mae (Ellie Mooney) are hosting a party. Everything is going as planned until Veta's brother Elwood shows up unexpectedly and starts introducing the guests to an invisible white rabbit named Harvey. Fed up with Elwood's antics and desperate to keep Myrtle May from becoming a social pariah, Veta decides to get her brother committed. The doctors at the asylum mistakenly commit Veta and let Elwood go free. Hijinks ensue as Elwood searches for Harvey, the doctors search for Elwood, and Veta searches for revenge. The play is a comic farce, but there are also some serious lessons about the value of standing out, being kind, and maintaining a positive attitude.
Ben Dibble is excellent as Elwood Dowd, a role made famous by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 film version. Dibble perfectly embodies the amiable attitude and guileless charm that insulate Elwood from the stress and strain of everyday life. The problem with director Bob Carlton's production is that all of the characters are similarly affable and well intentioned. Sister Veta seems appropriately exasperated with her brother rather than selfishly scheming to take control of his estate. Myrtle May is clueless rather than conniving. Even the doctors and nurses at the asylum are earnest in their attempts to treat Veta and Elwood. As a result there is no sense of tension or conflict. Not only does this lack of drama make it hard to get invested in the story, it makes it difficult for the cast to land the jokes. And laughs are exactly what's missing from this old-fashioned comedy.
Many of the farcical elements of the play fall flat because of problems with staging and timing. An exit comes a moment too late and what should be near-miss becomes a confusing encounter. What could be a humorously tense scene between four flustered acquaintances becomes dull when they stand oddly apart from each other, like strangers waiting for a bus. Some of the jokes are badly dated. Although it may have been good for a chuckle in the 1940s, a running gag about Veta's rough encounter with the hospital orderly is cringe inducing by today's standards.
There are some comic bright spots to be sure. Ian Merrill Peaks is hilarious as Lyman Sanderson, the doctor who mistakes Veta for a mental patient and spends the rest of the night trying to fix his mistake. Peaks keeps the audience laughing whenever he is on stage and the scene in which he is apologizing to Elwood at the asylum was my favorite. H. Michael Walls is quite funny as the venerable Dr. Chumley. There are some great one liners and a few excellent sight gags, but in the end Harvey is just not funny enough to be successful.
Harvey runs through March 6, 2016, at the Walnut Street Theatre,825 Walnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19107. For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster.
Production And Design Staff