Say Hello to HARVEY in Philadelphia


Throughout the ages, directors have made mistakes in casting, blocking and pacing. But has any director steered a stage property wrong because he used a certain projection?

It happens in HARVEY, now at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. During Scene One, dowager Veta Louise Simmons and her grown ugly-duckling daughter Myrtle Mae moan about Harvey. In recent months, he’s become the best friend of Elwood P. Dowd, Veta’s sister and Myrtle’s uncle.

The problem is there IS no Harvey, at least not one that these women can see. Elwood’s clearly gone crazy in believing that he’s constantly carrying on a conversation with someone who seems to rarely leave his side.

After Elwood enters and chats with someone we can’t see, either, we must agree with the ladies. Can we blame Veta for finally deciding to commit Elwood?

That brings us to Scene Two in Chumley’s Rest Home where Veta tells Dr. Sanderson about Harvey: “He’s a rabbit.”

Now theatergoers who don’t know Mary Coyle Chase’s play would be convulsed at this disclosure, for as they saw Elwood usher around an invisible being, they weren’t inferring that Harvey was a rabbit, let alone one who’s over six feet tall. They were automatically concluding that Harvey was a person.

At the Walnut, director Bob Carlton ruins the joke. For when the curtain comes down so the crew can change the set, Carlton puts a projection of a rabbit on that curtain.

The director may argue that everyone who enters the Walnut knows in advance that Harvey is a rabbit. Maybe not. Oh, there was a time when the world was quite aware of Harvey’s identity, thanks to the fame of this smash-hit that wound up winning the 1945 Pulitzer Prize (which was no small accomplishment, given that its competition included THE GLASS MENAGERIE).

HARVEY became the fourth-longest running play in Broadway history, leading to a 1950 film that was a big hit. James Stewart’s Elwood received an Oscar nomination and Josephine Hull’s Veta won the Academy Award.

But that was long ago, so there’s a generation or two that may enter the Walnut not knowing Harvey’s identity. While we’re at it, let’s also castigate the artist who drew the logo which includes a rabbit shadowing Elwood.

(Carlton may rebut, “Well, Peter, YOU’RE giving away in your review that Harvey’s a rabbit, aren’t you?” Yes, Bob, but you started it. )

Ben Dibble gets most of what makes Elwood special. He’s guileless when he answers the phone and hears that it’s a wrong number. He doesn’t hang up annoyed, but instead starts a conversation. Dibble understands that Elwood talks from not only from his head, but also his heart and soul. When Elwood describes an older matron as “a beautiful woman,” he’s not being an idle flatterer. Dibble admirably displays that this is what Elwood sees because he can look past age and fat and see inner beauty.

We’ve all told people that we want to get together “one of these days” or even “soon.” Tell that to Elwood, and he’ll zero in and say “When?” Dibble exhibits genuine zest in wanting to make a date so he can get to know the person to whom he’s speaking. Elwood doesn’t decry small talk and can’t be bored by anyone, for he sees every person as a candidate for friendship.

Stewart played this to perfection in the 1950 film and, best of all, was hilarious when he inadvertently came out with a funny line; his Elwood innocently didn’t know that he was amusing us. Dibble, alas, often laughs after one of his atypical observations as if he had been trying to make a joke all along. This makes him come across as, they used to say, a card, which isn’t as endearing.

There’s also a regrettable moment when Elwood misunderstands what Dr. Sanderson (a solid Ian Merrill Peakes) says and does a spit-take with his coffee. Such an unfortunate (and unbelievable) response should have been retired in the ‘50s after it had been shown far too often in many a sitcom.

Veta (the excellent Mary Martello) wants Elwood at Chumley’s so that Myrtle Mae (the fine Ellie Mooney) can bring home suitors who won’t be being freaked out by an uncle who claims to see a rabbit. Actually, the one who shows up at their door is Wilson (an adequate Dan Olmstead), Chumley’s stevedore-like guard. Myrtle Mae is usually directed to be, to quote a famous Sondheim lyric, “excited and scared,” but here Carlton has her as the aggressor who attacks Wilson in a much-too-man-hungry and unbelievable way. Myrtle as the prey is much funnier.

Or is Ken Ludwig responsible for this change? HARVEY fans may wonder why I mention the author of LEND ME A TENOR and MOON OVER BUFFALO, but Ludwig’s name is on the program for his providing “additional dialogue.”

Most of Ludwig’s additions neither hurt nor help; a tweak here, a character saying a line previously said by someone else, that sort of thing. But given that the program says “Time: 1944” (as even the antimacassars on Veta’s armchairs underline), why is Elwood saying that Harvey likes a particular nightclub because “he prefers the ladies in bunny costumes”? Considering that the first Playboy Club opened on Leap Year Day, 1960, that’s a 16-year leap from where HARVEY is still set.

More damaging is the line change when Veta tells about her being mistaken as crazy by Sanderson and manhandled by Wilson. Chase’s original “He grabbed hold of me like I was a woman of the streets … a crazy woman” has now been Ludwigcized to “a cleaning woman.” No, that’s too severely judgmental and makes us not like Veta for being overly class-conscious. Frankly, Coyle’s classic script needed no help from journeyman Ludwig.

Despite these non-improvements, Chase’s wonderful messages about the value of imagination and being nice still come through. And this is handsome production, thanks to Robert Koharchik’s evocative sets and Mark Mariani’s glorious costumes (including a woman’s hat that’s right out of a Restoration comedy).

At one point, Elwood cites his mother’s advice: “In this world you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant. I recommend pleasant.” Yes, that’s good advice for people at large, but a production of HARVEY should be both smart and pleasant. If only Bob Carlton could have delivered the latter as well as the former.