Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Harvey" at the Laguna Playhouse

About nine months after purchasing my ticket, I finally got to behold the wonder of Mary Chase's "Harvey" on stage last weekend at the historic Laguna Playhouse, with French Stewart in the James Stewart role. At least that was the idea.

"Harvey" premiered on Broadway in 1944 and resulted in a Pulitzer for Chase, a four year stage run, and an endearing classic film. Here is the synopsis from the play's Wikipedia page:

Elwood P. Dowd is an affable man who claims to have an unseen (and presumably imaginary) friend Harvey — whom Elwood describes as a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch (192 cm) tall pooka resembling an anthropomorphic rabbit. Elwood introduces Harvey to everyone he meets. His social-climbing sister, Veta, increasingly finds his eccentric behavior embarrassing. She decides to have him committed to a sanitarium
When they arrive at the sanitarium, a comedy of errors ensues. The young Dr. Sanderson mistakenly commits Veta instead of Elwood, but when the truth comes out, the search is on for Elwood and his invisible companion. When Elwood shows up at the sanitarium looking for his lost friend Harvey, it seems that the mild-mannered Elwood's delusion has had a strange influence on the staff, including sanitarium director Dr. Chumley. 
Only just before Elwood is to be given an injection that will make him into a "perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are!" (in the words of a taxi cab driver who has become involved in the proceedings) does Veta realize that she would rather have Elwood the same as he has always been — carefree and kind — even if it means living with Harvey. But the only reason Veta hears from the cab driver is that she can't find her coin purse and has to get the cab fare from Elwood. That is when the cab driver sees what is happening and goes into his spiel. Later Veta realizes that the purse was there all along, but Harvey hid it from her.

As a longtime fan of the film version, I was so looking forward to seeing "Harvey" onstage, but it just didn't meet my expectations. So at the risk of being a Debbie Downer, here are my gripes:
  • James Stewart - at least in the film version, for which he received an Oscar nomination - played Elwood with a sleepwalking gentleness that rendered him ultimately harmless despite his alcoholism and invisible giant rabbit friend. As the audience we can't help but hope he outfoxes the forces that want to lock him up and undo who he is. To me, French Stewart played him with an offputting hammy weirdness that made me understand why his own family might justifiably want him kept away for the greater good. I understand that stage acting is very different from film acting and have no way of knowing if James Stewart played the role differently on stage than he did in the movie. But the difference was jarring. Film Elwood has a sweet sadness that makes him endearing and non-threatening, while Laguna Elwood was at times kind of unnervingly creepy.
  • Josephie Hull played Veta Louise on stage and in the 1950 film, and both her performance and physicality are much different than how the character (portrayed by the star's real-life wife Vanessa Claire Stewart) was essayed in this version. Hull, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, portrayed Veta as a truly dotty old woman whose already existing eccentricities were unhelpfully exacerbated by the problems her brother and his invisible rabbit friend inflicted on her attempts to launch her daughter into society. The Laguna version of Veta came across as more of a sophisticated society matron swatting at flies. It also didn't help in the scene where Dr. Sanderson decides that Veta, not Elwood, is the one who is nuts. Hull's Veta is easily mistaken for someone in need of professional help, while the Laguna Veta just seemed like someone you would hand a valium to while rolling your eyes at the idea that her first world problem is a weird brother.
  • Then there's Myrtle Mae, Veta's daughter and Elwood's niece. It is Veta's attempt to launch Myrtle into a society that will eventually send her down the aisle with a desirable husband that sets the play into action, only to have Elwood unexpectedly arrive home and wreck the party by "introducing" Harvey to the guests. As portrayed in the film by Victoria Horne, Myrtle is no great beauty, nor is she terribly refined and therefore needs all the help she can get, making Uncle Elwood and Harvey a genuine threat to her future. It also makes her attraction to Wilson, the coarse, no-nonsense sanitarium muscle entirely plausible, because on a certain level they are equals. As played in this production by the adorable Lily Gibson, Myrtle is a blonde Betty Boop. Baby voiced and vacant, she does have her looks going for her, so despite having Uncle Elwood and Harvey in the family, you don't worry that at some point this baby bombshell will manage to land a husband. Plus, the disparity between Laguna Myrtle and Wilson (well and faithfully played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) makes his pursuit of her creepy, as she doesn't seem to quite know what to do about his attentions, as opposed to Horne's Myrtle, who swooned over Wilson the moment she laid eyes on him. In the film they seem like a natural pairing (albeit to Veta's dismay) while here it makes his attentions to Myrtle seem unwelcome and feel unsettling. 

But apparently I'm in the minority here, because the reviews I found online praised the production and raved about French Stewart's rendering of Elwood Dowd. Go figure. It just didn't do it for me.

There were three things that I did get a kick out of: First, in addition to Mongiardo-Cooper, I also loved Teresa Ganzel in the potentially thankless role of the ditzy Mrs. Chumley. I thought she was delightful. Next was discovering via the program that Carole Ita White, who played Mrs. Chauvenet, is the daughter of Jessie White, who played Wilson in both the original Broadway production as well as in the film version. Finally, when the cast came out to take their bows, Harvey was included. The door of Dr. Chumley's office opened to admit him to the stage, he took his applause, and the cast left a spot open for him when they took their final bows.

But it says something about the production that the high point of the show is when it has just ended. I'm glad I saw it because I would have felt like I'd missed out if I hadn't. But it wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for. But I would be open to seeing another staging of "Harvey", if for not other reason than to see how it would compare to the classic film and my expectations, especially since reading the play didn't prepare me for a staged version that differed greatly from the movie.

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