“Harvey,” that old chestnut of a comedy, is like a big, sloppy, wet smooch on your kisser from a friendly pooch. You’re not sure that you really like it, but you know that it’s affectionate and well-meant.
As performed by the first-rate cast of the Hampton Theatre Company at Quogue Community Hall, it provides a night of goofy charm.
The play, if by some chance you don’t know, is about an imaginary 6-foot-3-inch-tall rabbit named Harvey, whom only a polite and pleasant tippler named Elwood P. Dowd can see and talk to. He likes to introduce people to Harvey, and this causes all sorts of distress for his sister, Veta, and niece, Myrtle Mae, both of whom live with him in Des Moines, Iowa—convinced Elwood’s daffiness is ruining Myrtle Mae’s chance at marriage.
But who’s to be institutionalized—gentle, harmless Elwood, or his addled, hysterical sister—makes up a merry mess that takes up most of the drama. It plays sometimes like classic French bedroom farce, as doors open and close, and people pop out and in with well-timed exits and entrances, albeit here without the sex. But the play, first performed on Broadway in 1944, definitely feels dated, harking back to a much more innocent time. Instead of edge, there’s nostalgia. Instead of wit, there’s a mere nudge in that direction.
Since “Harvey” was made into a very popular 1950 movie starring James Stewart, in a role that fit him like a bespoke suit, and because the play has been fodder for theater groups of all stripes countless times, the antics are well-known to almost everyone of a certain age. Most would not fit the prime-time TV target audience of 18- to 49-year-olds, but that’s not who makes up the bulk of the loyal group of fans of the Hampton Theatre Company.
Every mention of “Harvey” is a reminder that Mary Chase’s play won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama in 1945, beating out Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” What were they thinking? The New York Times theater critic at the time noted that there was a lot of “simmering” over the choice. No wonder. “The Glass Menagerie” is great theater. “Harvey” is mild fun, and seemed an odd choice for such a sophisticated theater company that easily handles new and biting theater, as they did last season with “God of Carnage.”
Enough about “Harvey” as written. This current incarnation, under the deft direction of Diana Marbury, frolics through the mayhem effortlessly. Matthew Conlon, whom local theatergoers saw last season in “The Foreigner,” is really as good as Jimmy Stewart in the film, which this critic watched just before writing. Mr. Conlon’s ability to seem bemused, lucid but somewhat dopey, and all the while almost normal—even while escorting around an unseen, giant rabbit that may be a harmless fairy called a pooka—is pitch perfect in the role of Elwood P. Dowd.
Pamela Kern portrays his voluble sister, and while she has the physical humor down-pat, the constant frenetic inflection in her voice makes her sometimes difficult to understand in the hall.
Filling out the cast are Amanda Griemsmann as Myrtle Mae; John Kern as William R. Chumley, M.D., the director of Chumley’s Rest, where half the action takes place; Sebastian Marbury as Lyman Sanderson, M.D., the admitting psychiatrist who confuses the patient with those who are not; and Krista Kurtzberg as the attractive, flirtatious nurse at Chumley’s Rest. Others in the cast include Martha Kelly, Catherine Maloney, Douglas O’Connor, John J. Steele and Russell Weisenbacher.
“Harvey” may indeed be an old chestnut, but this staging by the cast and crew treats it with amiable affection.
Hampton Theatre Company will stage “Harvey” on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through November 9, at Quogue Community Hall. Tickets are $25, $23 for seniors, except Saturdays, and $10 for students under age 21. For more information, call (631) 653-8955 or visit hamptontheatre.org.