BWW Review: The A.D. Players' HARVEY Is a Gift
In the past few weeks we Houstonians have had choice words for Harvey. "Delightful", "Refreshing", "Funny", and "Must see" were not among them.
Planned a year ago as the opening of their 2017-18 season, no one had any inkling how ironic the title HARVEY would be. Playwright Mary Chase's merry little romp seemed like a good idea at the time. And as it turned out, it was.
At a time when the theater is deadly serious, and the natural arc of a three-act play is considered old-fashioned and irrelevant, HARVEY comes on like a breath of fresh air; a palate cleanser, a sorbet, if you will.
Written in the all-too-brief span between the Depression and World War II, that's pretty much what it did. Audiences wanted diversion, and HARVEY gave it to them.
It's laugh-out-loud funny; bright and brittle on the outside, with a dark nougat center.
Because HARVEY is not just a drawing-room comedy. It has something to say - about society's values, about the human condition, about the meaning of love.
But it says it in such a way that the medicine goes down before you even see the spoon. And it's good for you.
The story goes like this: In a medium-sized town in what feels like the mid-west, Veta Louise Simmons (Patty Tuel Bailey) and her twenty-something daughter Myrtle Mae (Skyler Sinclair) live in the old family home with Veta's younger brother, Elwood.P. Dowd (Kevin Michael Dean). This might be an ideal arrangement except for a fourth occupant, seen only by Elwood, a six-foot, 6-inch tall rabbit named "Harvey", because that's his name.
That might have been fine and dandy, except for Elwood's penchant for introducing Harvey to their friends and acquaintances, with somewhat disturbing results.
As Veta says, she's trying to get Myrtle Mae started with a nice group of young people, especially of the male persuasion, and Uncle Elwood is something of a hindrance.
When Elwood crashes a social gathering that Veta has carefully planned not to include him, and brings Harvey along, she has had enough.
At the end of her rope, she telephones the family lawyer, Judge Gaffney (Ric Hodgin) to arrange for Elwood's permanent residence in a sanitarium, Chumley's Rest, bundles the ever-amiable Elwood into a taxi, and hustles him off to the nut house.
At Chumley's, she proceeds with the formalities of commitment, aided by Nurse Ruth Kelly (Bree Welch) and handsome young Dr. Lyman Sanderson (David Matranga). After the usual exchange of information, a hulking assistant Duane Wilson(Jeff McMorrough) is instructed to "ask" Elwood to accompany him upstairs, which Wilson does with very little finesse.
The scene is set for a non-stop series of mishaps and misunderstandings; I won't spoil them by telling.
Disclosure: HARVEY is one of my favorite plays. I've seen the movie made from the play literally dozens of time; I own the DVD. And there is always the danger of letting pre-conceived notions get in the way of seeing a new production. It's an occupational hazard for critics, and one to avoid at all costs.
So when I saw that I would be reviewing this production, I was a little leery. What if it wasn't up to the original? How could it be? What if they ruined it? What if they changed it?
To be honest, I had misgivings, but that's the nature of the job.
So, pure in heart, I headed for A.D. Players new jewel of a home on Westheimer, not knowing what I would find. The first thing I found was ample and accessible FREE PARKING. I could have written a review on just that. But there was more to come.
The theater is beautifully designed. The welcoming lobby has the feeling somehow of a new car showroom, with that kind of anticipatory excitement. I mean that as a compliment. The auditorium has great sightlines and acoustics, with comfortable seats.
As to the production itself, I needn't have worried. It was great. The cast was top-notch, playing both the very subtle comedy and the slapstick elements with aplomb and verve. They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The principles were on point throughout, ably supported by the secondary characters. Craig Griffin appears as "Dr. Chumley", Elizabeth Marshall Black as his wife, "Betty", and E.J. Lofgren as the philosophical cabbie. Marcy Bannor took a hilarious turn as "Aunt" Ethel Chauvenet. "Doesn't she look ghastly?; I thought she was dead."
Director Julia Traber gave everyone a chance to shine, and they did not disappoint.
Stage manager Debs Ramser kept everything going, including some quite ambitious set changes designed by Ryan McGettigan.
Costume design by Macy Lyne was accurate and attractive. I tend to pick at costuming in period pieces, and was glad to see that she even included the seams on the stockings.
In a very able cast, Patty Tuel Bailey as VETA LOUISE and Kevin Michael Dean as ELWOOD are standouts. Bailey is perfectly and adorably flibbertygibbetty, and Dean is beautifully understated in a role that demands it. If there is even a hint of self-awareness in the character, the illusion of truth is destroyed. Elwood must be Elwood. In a lesser actor, there would be the temptation to mug, but Dean never succumbs.
Aware of the trauma Houstonians have been through, and in many cases, are still going through, The A.D. Players donated 20% of the door to Harvey relief. Furthermore, anyone who suffered damage from the storm was offered free admission to the play. What a gift!