MCT may be suffering some sort of Christmas curse. Last year around this time the company presented A Christmas Story, which set the troupe’s professional reputation back a good 10 years. This year, sandwiched between Joseph’s charisma and the precision dance and song (we hope) of A Chorus Line, MCT has stuck a big, lumbering blockhead of a play that glorifies heavy drinking and treats women as conniving, idiotic harpies, all in the name of a laugh.
Mike Wellert’s task in directing such an anachronism is to get us in on the joke. However, the actors must be in on it first, and I regret to report that with the exception of Margaret Johnson, in all too short an appearance, the cast seems uniformly confused and uncomfortable with the material. John Bulger plays Elwood and has some very nice moments—funny, sincere and winning. Best when portraying the gentlemanly naïf with other people, Bulger founders in scenes he shares with the invisible 6-foot-tall eponymous rabbit, and if he doesn’t believe what he’s doing we certainly can’t.
Harvey is set in a time intolerant of mental illness and even more suspicious of psychiatry, a form of quackery best left to the undeserving crackpots. Much of the play’s humor depends on determining just who is a crackpot. The rest depends on making fools out of women: Elwood’s sister and niece are embarrassed in their social climbing by the unpredictable Elwood; the niece is a ditzy nympho ready for the first available warm body; Nurse Kelly of the sanitarium seems to have secured a job simply for the access it gives her to doctors—when not flirting or pouting, she’s sitting bored at her desk filing her nails. Oh brother, that one hasn’t been used since I Dream of Jeannie, a show that in sexist servility and mistaken diagnoses is a not-too-distant cousin of Harvey.
Costumer Susan Marquand continues to expand her wardrobe talents after Joseph, and the ’40s cocktail dresses, fur-trimmed coats and sharply-cut men’s suits are some of the best-executed and most finely felt aspects of this production. Marquand senses the comic power of contrast with the hospital’s white coats and uniforms. Wellert points out in the program’s director’s notes that Harvey once relieved a war-weary audience of its troubles. The idea of believing in some invisible goodness, some fantastical spirit of joy, now seems just archaic, along with the material. Perhaps we have grown too sophisticated in our cynicism, or too complex in our demands. Now it is the absurd exploits in The Sopranos that provide us with escape, that sense of another world that mirrors ours, yet is at the same time a step through the looking glass.
As a relic, Harvey might have some charm, but the cardboard feel of everything from the sets to the actors flattens the whole enterprise into a nail-grating classroom production. Like A Christmas Story, Harvey feels unready for an audience, the details of delivery and blocking still in need of attention. The action of the play switches between Elwood’s living room and the reception area of Dr. Chumley’s rest, a nuthouse. In both cases, furniture clutters the center of the stage and forces the cast to navigate a lot of obstacles. To avoid the impediments, Wellert pushes the actors farther and farther upstage, shoving their interactions up against the walls behind the furniture. A profusion of chairs in the hospital scenes provides all the actors with some degree of trouble. When they aren’t tripping over the chairs, they worry about moving them out of their way. They cross behind each other and must crane their necks in order to make eye contact.
A director is rather like an invisible rabbit—his or her effect is crucial, his presence felt in everything. In invisibility he is all-powerful, in influence he is unchallenged. His actors must believe in him as much as Elwood believes in Harvey, and his audience must submit to him without knowing they are under his spell. In this production, the main thing missing is that rabbit.
Harvey plays at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts, Dec. 11–14, with Weds.–Sun. evening performances at 8 PM, a Sunday evening performance at 6:30 PM, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM. Tickets cost $14–$18. Call 728-PLAY for info.