Harvey the pooka at the Shaw Festival

(May 3, 2010) We’re so familiar with the classic film version of Harvey — we’ve owned copies in at least three different video formats — that it wasn’t easy at first to hear the familiar lines spoken last week in different ways by different actors on the Shaw Festival stage. But we got over it in short order. This one flies on its own merits.

Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz) makes friends with Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly)

Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of the great American plays. It won the Pulitzer and ran on Broadway for four years back in the 1940s, but we’d never before seen it on stage. This domestic comedy (with strong elements of fantasy and whimsy) is the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz), an amiable middle-aged man of no occupation who has failed to live up to his youthful promise after inheriting family money.  Elwood spends most of his days drinking in bars with his “friend” Harvey.

Unfortunately for Elwood’s long-suffering sister Veta (Mary Haney) and niece Myrtle Mae (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), Harvey is a pooka, a six-and-a-half-foot invisible rabbit. Veta cannot introduce Myrtle Mae into society, where she might meet eligible young men, because Elwood has an unsettling habit of introducing his invisible friend to people he meets.

Norman Browning

When Elwood appears unexpectedly at a ladies’ club concert in their home, guests scatter in alarm as Elwood introduces them to his invisible companion. That’s the last straw for Veta, who decides to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest (Dr. Chumley is played by the hilarious and inimitable Norman Browning), a sanitarium run mainly by his uptight assistant and fellow psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Gray Powell).

Elwood's sister Veta (Mary Haney), visited by Dr. Chumley (Norman Browning), is unpleasantly surprised to find that Elwood's portrait of Harvey is up in place of the portrait of her mother.

Can magical creatures like pookas be real?  Can one man’s reality be different from another’s?  Is escapism underrated?  Harvey raises and answers metaphysical questions — but this production, directed by Joe Ziegler, downplays the thought-provoking elements of Harvey and goes for comedy. And although there’s a good deal of the supernatural in the play, Ziegler plays it for laughs as well.  The scene where Dr. Chumley’s orderly, Mr. Wilson (Tim Ziegler) looks up the word “pooka” and finds the dictionary talking back to him, for example, might well be a “thrill-and-chill” moment, but the Zieglers (both director and actor) make it a light moment.

Nurse Kelly and Dr. Lyman Sanderson talk to Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) in the 1950 movie version of Harvey

So how is this play different from the movie? For one thing, it’s more risque (although by contemporary standards that’s not saying much). In one scene, the tightly wound Dr. Sanderson tells Elwood that he and Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) had made a “mistake” together earlier in the day; Elwood interprets this, in his diplomatic way, as a confession that the doctor and nurse had succumbed to sexual passion for one another. The movie version of Harvey contained no such suggestion — indeed, no suggestion that Elwood knew anything about carnality at all.

We heard some lines, especially early in the play, that we don’t remember hearing in the movie, and we missed some fine scenes that were evidently written just for the movie, especially a bar scene in which Elwood and Harvey order drinks from a bartender and talk to a down-and-out alcoholic friend who’s just gotten out of prison. The most striking difference between play and movie, however, is that the last scenes in the movie raise the possibility that the pooka might transfer his patronage from Elwood (who enjoys Harvey’s company for its own sake) to Dr. Chumley (who simply wants to take advantage of the pooka’s magical powers).  And unlike the play, the movie ends with a bit of match-making. The movie director evidently thought that more “resolution” and less ambiguity was needed in a feature film.

Mary Haney

This show won’t make us forget James Stewart and Josephine Hull (Elwood’s sister Veta in the movie), but it’s full of wonderful moments and has some marvelous acting, especially from Mary Haney, who is a much more clear-eyed and self-controlled Veta (and thus arguably a more effective foil to her brother Elwood) than Josephine Hull’s flustered character. We enjoyed Diana Donnelly as the sexually frustrated Nurse Kelly; Ms. Donnelly is well matched with Gray Powell as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the oblivious, professionally-absorbed object of her infatuation.

And speaking of sex, Mary Chase uses the sexually repressed Dr. Sanderson to make fun of Freudian psychiatry, which was very much in vogue back in the 1940s.  The ease with which Dr. Sanderson diagnosed the perfectly sane Veta as a mental case reminded us of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s great minor characters, Sir Roderick Glossop, also a psychiatrist, who found everyone he met a candidate for the looney bin.

Less satisfying were the less experienced actors in the cast. Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae Simmons was played by Zarrin Darnell-Martin, whose acting seemed to us markedly short of professional standards. Jim Ziegler, as Dr. Chumley’s muscle-man Duane Wilson, seemed merely to have copied the mannerisms of the actor who played the part in the 1950 movie.

Elwood P. Down (Peter Krantz) enchants Dr. Chumley's wife Betty (Donna Belleville)

That brings us to Shaw Festival veteran Peter Krantz, who plays Elwood P. Dowd. It must not be easy to play a character who never becomes angry or excited and who, no matter how others treat him, remains smiling, courteous, pleasant, and oblivious — in other words, a character whose manner hardly changes throughout the play. (The only thing close to an emotion that Elwood is permitted is a hint of eagerness whenever he thinks someone is offering him a drink.) About Mr. Krantz’s generally capable performance we have mixed feelings.

Mr. Krantz is not our favorite Shaw Festival actor to begin with, a prejudice that dates from his role as a sexual deviant in a 2003 Shaw Festival show we did not enjoy, The Coronation Voyage, and as the lead actor in what was unquestionably the worst Shaw Festival show we’ve ever seen, 2005’s The Invisible Man.  To us Mr. Krantz never seems quite wholly at ease; he has a certain watchful wariness about him that keeps us from being entirely comfortable when he’s on stage.  To our minds, therefore, his is not a stage presence well-suited to play a character whose principal characteristics are utter affability and freedom from guile.

But if not Mr. Krantz, then who? The program includes a list of the 2010 Shaw Festival ensemble, and we went through it to look for other candidates for the role of Elwood P. Dowd. Michael Ball or David Schurrman? Too long in the tooth. Patrick Galligan? Too urbane. Ben Carlson? Too edgy. Benedict Campbell could have pulled it off. Our pick would have been the versatile, age-appropriate Blair Williams, who unfortunately is not appearing at Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer.

We saw last year that Stephen Spielberg planned to start shooting a remake of Harvey in early 2010, with Robert Downey, Jr. or Brad Pitts rumored as candidates for the role of of Elwood Dowd. We were glad to see in the Shaw Festival’s program that this thoroughly unnecessary project has died a natural death.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. And his thoughts on the Chekhov masterpiece The Cherry Orchard are at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

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  1. I did some checking. The illustrated volume is a first edition (maybe the only edition of the play as reading material) and dates to 1953 or 1954, depending on which bookseller you look at. One has a copy for $52 something. The others start in at $99 or $119, and one wants $3850. However, my hometown library’s catalog still says they have the book, and my sister is going to get it this weekend and scan the illustrations for me, and I’ll share them when that happens.

    Robert Blechman has a blog at Huffington Post! That’s the other thing I found out while searching for those drawings.

  2. Kip, I am much obliged and will wander over to the Rochester Public Library next week to take a look. I believer strongly that the best books are illustrated books. I do have a copy of Harvey, but it’s just one of many, without illustrations, in an old anthology of notable plays of the first half of the 20th century.

  3. If you can find it (at a library, perhaps) the script that’s illustrated by Robert Blechman is worth seeing. His minimal drawings capture spirit with great economy. I’ve tried in vain to find a copy for myself, though I can bring back the image of his picture of Dowd’s sister wiping away tears with one hand as she reaches for the pen to commit him with the other.

  4. Mr. Krantz:

    Did I truly “pan” your performance in Harvey? I didn’t think so, and didn’t mean to. First, I heartily recommended to Emsworth readers a show in which you had the leading role. Second, I described your performance as “generally capable.” Granted, that wasn’t exactly fulsome, unstinted praise, and I might well have said more, but it wasn’t a “pan”!

    The rub, of course, is that I went on to give some of my own subjective thoughts about your casting in this particular role. In so doing I tried to be careful to indicate that I had finished with my attempt to evaluate the show on objective terms (the “review” part of my post), and that I was now moving on to discuss merely personal feelings. I began by confessing that my feelings about your casting was a “prejudice.”

    This isn’t the first time that Emsworth (switching from “criticism” to “personal thoughts”) has admitted such a prejudice. In June 2008, blogging as Emsworth about The Little Foxes, I confessed that it was “quite unfair” to you:

    “I cannot see Peter Krantz, a Shaw Festival regular who plays Oscar Hubbard in The Little Foxes, on the stages of the Shaw Festival without a return of the visceral feelings that he aroused in those that saw him as the predatory pervert in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Coronation Voyage several years ago. My reaction is quite unfair to Mr. Krantz, and after seeing him in Getting Married as the sympathetic, comic Boxer, I thought I might have shaken this unfortunate association. But his character in The Little Foxes is every bit as repulsive as his character in The Coronation Voyage, and as Oscar Hubbard he quite undid the salutory effect of his portrayal of Boxer.”

    (The full piece is at https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2008/06/16/the-little-foxes-at-the-shaw-festival-a-review/.)

    Isn’t the possibility of being type-cast by audiences one of the realities that you and other actors have to live with? Don’t both stage actors and movie actors sometimes consider how their public image might be affected if they take particular roles? I doubt if I’m the only regular Shaw Festival patron who has come to identify you with “villain” roles like the one you played so well in the J. M. Barrie one-act last summer (in which, I thought, the stage persona I referred to in my Harvey review served you well).

    In my defense, one of the unwritten privileges of bloggers is that we’re free to include personal, subjective reactions along with attempts at objective criticism. That wouldn’t be appropriate for a newspaper critic. But a mere blogger – who can indulge in the conceit that his readers are interested in his own emotional responses – has more latitude.

    And so in writing as Emsworth, I rely on my readers’ ability to take note when I’m turning the switch from attempting to provide an objective review of a show – the traditional role of a critic – to giving my own subjective response to a performance or some aspect of it.

    Frankly, I don’t find it comfortable to tell a talented professional like yourself, one of the leading actors of my favorite repertory company, that he hasn’t been a favorite actor. Surely, though, it’s no surprise to someone of your professional experience that members of the audience do come to have favorites – and not-so-favorites – on the Shaw Festival stages.

    Can I separate a role from the actor? I surely think I can. For what it’s worth, although I didn’t think much of The Coronation Voyage those many years ago and didn’t enjoy it, I never thought you acted badly in it. Indeed, I can’t remember ever seeing you give what I thought was a poor performance at the Shaw Festival. Nor did it seem to me your fault that The Invisible Man was such a disaster.

    Regards,

    Emsworth

  5. Every year we receive a package of reviews from our previous year. As I never read them during the year, I was greatly surprised by all the wonderful things people said about me. That is until I read your review. How odd that you would be virtually the only one to pan me. Then you qualified yourself by stating that you have never liked my work, in part because of my unfortunate casting as a pedophile, and the lead in a flawed adaptation of Invisible Man. It doesn’t seem to me that you are very qualified to review a performance, if you can’t separate the role from the actor. I attach a list of all the other reviewers and what they said about Harvey.

    “Krantz is perfectly cast as the charming, chivalrous Elwood in Ziegler’s warm-hearted production. With the voice of Stuart McLean and the bearing of the Friendly Giant, Krantz is absolutely loveable.”
    J. Kelly Nestruck
    3 out of 4 stars
    The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2010

    “Every bit as savvy — and even more subtle — is Peter Krantz as Elwood. With a gentle, shambling charm and a sweet, crooked smile, he’ll remind you of a Forrest Gump who’s been treating life as a row of cocktails rather than a box of chocolates.

    Krantz also saves all his best moments for the play’s second half, letting you to get know his character on its own simple, uncompromising terms before opening the door to his heart and letting you love him. It’s splendid work.”
    Richard Ouzounian
    3 ½ stars out of 4
    The Toronto Star, May 31, 2010

    “Stewart, though, never succeeded in making me see Harvey for myself, while Krantz, in Joseph Ziegler’s lovely production, succeeds completely. Elwood is a one-note role; Krantz hits his note — sweet undentable wistfulness — exactly, and sustains it impeccably.”
    Robert Cushman
    The National Post, June 4, 2010

    “With Harvy, I was hugely impressed with Peter Krantz as Elwood. He made Elwood courtly, gently but smart.. At times I thought I saw the rabbit.”
    Lynn Slotkin
    CBC Radio, May 31, 2010

    “Elwood is a gentleman to the core, qualities the Peter Krantz conveys so elegantly”
    Scene Changes
    Jeniva Berger

    “Harvey is the play I least wanted to see, yet the one I enjoyed the most. Peter Krantz is so engaging”……
    Rochester City Newspaper – Michael Lasser June 30, 2010
    “Peter Krantz’s endearing portrayal of Elwood…….funny as the production is, it never abandons its inherenty warmth of heart and goodness of spirit. And for this, we have to thank Krantz for his sure-footed portrayal of Elwood.”
    Jamie Portman
    Canwest News Service, June 3, 2010

    “A brilliant performance by Peter Krantz as Elwood”……
    Xtra
    David Bateman, June 17, 2010

    “Peter Krantz as Elwood breathed new life into a vehicle that challenges the artificial divisions that society places between reality and delusion.”
    The Post and Opinion, Indianapolis
    Harold Jacobson, June 16, 2010

    “Peter Krantz plays Dowd with the sort of appeal and aplomb that would make Simon Cowell grin. He is the magnet that draws all the elements of this excellently paced show into alignment.”
    Buffalo News
    Colin Dabkowski, June 5, 2010

    “Peter Krantz’s Elwood is clearly his own…….Krantz prevails with unique charm.”
    Buffalo Rocket
    Doug Smith, July 1, 2010

    “If Chase’s play is going to grab us it requires a likable Elwood P. Dowd. My favourite was always James Stewart. I saw him on Broadway with the delightful Helen Hayes. Well, Peter Krantz is just about as good at the Shaw Festival.”
    Gary Smith
    Hamilton Spectator, June 5, 2010

    “Peter Krantz is a perfect, unflappable Elwood.”
    Classical 96.3
    Paula Citron

    “Elwood was made famous by the late Jimmy Stewart….but I can say without reservation that veteran company member Peter Krantz has mad the role his very own. He made me see Harvey, but I suppose that is because he is so accomplished.”
    CFPL
    Ric Wellwood

    “He hits close to the bullseye with his performance……..his ability to draw the personalities of the various players together, to have them all ultimately respect and like him, comes from Krantz’s spot on presentation.”
    Rochester Freetime
    Scott Gudell,

    “For Krantz the role of Elwood P. Dowd must be a godsend and a career-defining performance for he excels in it. He brings out both the naivete and intelligence of Elwood.”
    Reviews and Views
    James Karas June 10, 2010

    “There aren’t enough superlatives available in the confinements of this space to praise Peter Krantz’s portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd.

    Krantz exudes a wonderful persona of beguiling innocence and street smarts that assure his place in the summer festival hall of fame (Did we just create something here?).”
    S. James Wegg
    4 ½ out of 5 stars

    “Chase’s 1944 play “Harvey,” about one Elwood P. Dowd, whose bosom pal is an invisible 6-foot white rabbit, became a part of our cultural fabric with the 1950 film version starring James Stewart. Indeed, any actor who tackles the role of the serenely oblivious Elwood does so at peril of comparison with Stewart.
    But from the moment we meet the festival’s appealing, sweet-tempered Elwood, played by Peter Krantz, all comparisons vanish. Everything that could be better about our perspective on the world, about human interaction, we comprehend in Krantz’s gentle, embracing, certifiably crazy character.”
    Lawrence B Johnson
    The Detroit News, July 10, 2010

    “A second outstanding production is Mary Chase’s Harvey (*****), probably best known from the 1950 film version. Not only is the play tighter and funnier than the film, but Peter Krantz is ideal as Elwood P. Dowd, the man whose friend is an invisible six-foot tall rabbit. Amazingly, Krantz’s combination of childlike innocence and unflappable politeness outdoes even James Stewart’s in the film.”
    Eye Weekly
    Christopher Hoile, June 10, 2010

    The most happy surprise of the festival was the fresh and funny version of “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s rarely produced allegorical comedy about an all-American bachelor who happens to talk to a six-foot-tall rabbit no one else can see. The play notoriously edged out “The Glass Menagerie” for the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, and the dramas share an interest in overbearing mothers, unwed daughters and the necessity of escaping into fantasy.
    With an unflappable, gee-whiz sweetness, Peter Krantz brings to life Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 movie with the same sense of wonder.
    Staged with great emotional feeling by Joseph Ziegler, the play can seem old-fashioned, innocent and sentimental (it’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg wanted to remake it). But its central theme remains timeless: the power of the imagination to make fantasy seem real.
    Elwood believes in his rabbit, Harvey, so fervently that he wins converts. Those who mocked him, even a doctor, start seeing the rabbit, too. The play reveals the inspiration and danger of faith, and also drama. For what is the suspension of disbelief but a group of artists convincing you of something imaginary until you are moved into seeing it as real? I entered the theater a bit skeptical about how the material would hold up, but this production made me believe. In other words, “Harvey” didn’t just explore a theme — it proved it.
    New York Times
    Jason Zinoman, Aug. 17, 2010

    “The production is blessed with a wonderful, laid-back performance by Peter Krantz. He doesn’t work at making Elwood funny, he just walks through the man’s life with an open mind, an open countenance, and no hidden agendas.”
    The Post Journal
    Robert W Plyler, Aug. 28, 2010

    Too bad you couldn’t have done the same.

    Peter Krantz


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