Mary Chase's 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey is a deceptive comedy. Light and fluffy as a bunny on the outside, the story has a strangely dark center that is captured beautifully in the Alley Theatre's bang-up production of the odd little play about Elwood P. Dowd (James Black), a tender soul who spends his days and nights bar-hopping with Harvey, his invisible six-foot rabbit friend.
Directed with great comedic brio by Gregory Boyd, the farcical play starts out at an afternoon tea party given by Elwood's sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Kristine Nielsen), who lives with her man-hungry daughter Myrtle Mae Simmons (Elizabeth Bunch) in Elwood's handsome mansion. Veta is lucky to have such a generous sibling; unfortunately, Elwood's invisible friend makes it hard for her to climb the social ladder the way she needs to if she's going to find Myrtle Mae a husband.
On the afternoon we first meet them, mother and daughter have plotted to get Elwood and his invisible bunny out of the house so they can hobnob with the most important dowagers of the town. All seems to be going swell; in fact, they are almost hysterical with excitement and nervous glee as they peer into the off-stage party from the library, where they've come to gossip.
The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700.
Through May 9. Tickets start at $21.
Of course, Elwood and his rabbit inevitably return home just when the bash gets going. And when he shocks all the fine ladies by introducing them to his invisible big bunny, the real trouble starts. Veta makes the grim decision to have her brother committed. Over three acts, the surprisingly fast-paced play bounces back and forth between Elwood's warm, lavish library and the sterile sanitarium Chumley's Rest, where all sorts of silliness and terrible psychiatric mistakes take place under the watch of William R. Chumley, M.D. (John Tyson).
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When she first arrives at the ridiculous place, Veta Louise sounds so kooky telling her brother's tale, the doctor carts her off to the padded room instead of Elwood. Meanwhile, innocent Elwood, who knows nothing about his sister's plans, charms the entire hospital staff. They let him go, but then a town judge sets things square. The white coats go out and scour the town bars where the affable Elwood spends his afternoons.
Along the way, we hear all sorts of strange wisdom. Elwood declares that a person can be smart or pleasant, and he chooses to be pleasant. We learn that Harvey is a "pooka" — a mischief-making spirit who knows the future. We also learn that Elwood has never married, that he'd do anything for his sister and that folks don't stay friends with him for long after he's introduced them to Harvey, though all the barkeeps in town adore him. As funny as the play is, the character at the center of the story is surprisingly lonely, even for all his endless charm.
Boyd's remarkable cast makes this strange paradox of a play work. Nielsen's Veta Louise — the comedic heart of this production — is a woman who can't stay calm for a cup of tea. Her hands flap about and her pretty eyes roll in her head as she appears to be at the edge of fainting every time another thing goes wrong. The lovely Bunch is an unlikely Myrtle Mae, and yet, as the gawky girl who trembles at the thought of a man looking her way, she is hilariously real. And then there is Black's Elwood, who is both charming and enigmatic, sweet and achingly lonely. Black brings quiet depth to a character that could easily become a cartoon performed by a lesser actor.
This play from another era is an unlikely choice for today's cynical audience. The comedy is all old-school farce, filled with stereotypes and ridiculous mistakes. But in the hands of this wonderfully capable cast, the laughs become fresh. And even more surprising, the loneliness that drives these characters to act so foolishly is quietly revealed as the story somehow becomes deeper and more lasting than anything named for an invisible rabbit ought to be.