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Lambert and McGovern “born to play” HARVEY at the New Phoenix Theatre

THE BASICS: Mary Chase’s beloved play HARVEY starring Richard Lambert and Tammy Hayes McGovern, directed by Tom Makar, continues at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (off of Elmwood near the Herman Badillo School) at 8:00 p.m Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays only. Thursdays are “pay what you can” evenings. HARVEY runs through December 19. Small bar (soda pop, wine, and beer). Run time 2-1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  For some time now, the affable, likeable, easy going, charming Elwood P. Dowd has had a friend – a six foot four and one half inch tall rabbit named Harvey whom only he can see, but for whom he has great affection. Elwood has equal affection for his sister, the widowed Veta Louise Simmons, whom Harvey is “driving crazy.” So who is really “crazy” here?  Elwood who sees and talks to Harvey or Veta, who wants to have Elwood committed and given a treatment for his condition? That question drives a lot of the humor in this play.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It seemed as if Richard Lambert and Tammy Hayes McGovern were “born to play” their roles as they inhabit their characters so flawlessly. To play Elwood P. Dowd one must first of all be likeable and of sufficient gravitas as an actor to hold a center of calm and repose in the middle of swirling chaos, at times in scenes with 5 other actors on a very small set. Lambert never once broke character. By the end of the play, if you don’t “see” Harvey yourself, at least you’ll believe that the fellow on stage really was Elwood P. Dowd.

Equally talented, but representing the polar opposite on the “keep calm and carry on” scale, Tammy Hayes McGovern was absolutely spot on as the at-the-end-of-her-rope sister of a dipsomaniac who “ruins” her social life (and that of her daughter) by his appearances at her gatherings as he introduces Harvey to her social circle.

In our time we have seen many realistic portrayals of excessive drinkers and the havoc they leave in their selfish, self-centered path.  This is not one of those plays.  Elwood is not your typical drinker. We hear of no fights, broken furniture, car crashes, or financial crises.  In fact, everyone likes Elwood P. Dowd because Elwood P. Dowd both likes and also really cares about everyone.  When he says “how are you?” it’s not a social formality.  He’s really interested. And, at one time or another, every character in the play is captivated by his charm.

The direction by Tom Makar (whom we usually see as the sound designer at various theaters around town) was firm and the blocking was excellent, especially notable with all those characters moving in that small space. At times, however, the dialog dragged a little, as if the various supporting actors were waiting for the other actors to completely finish their lines. In real life we talk over each other, we don’t speak in full sentences, we interrupt each other, the conversation moves along briskly. But, of course, in a theater, we want to hear the dialog clearly. It’s not an easy balance to deal with – “real speech” versus “stage speech” but here is was a little bit too much of the latter.

If the two principals, Lambert and McGovern, set the bar high, the supporting cast came up with their own fine performances. In order of appearance Caitlin Bauemler Coleman as Veta’s daughter Myrtle had the right blend of loyalty to momma with the occasional flirtatious desire to be her own person. Sharon Strait did well as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet, establishing the social milieu as one of the first characters on stage. Jamie Nablo is one of those highly skilled younger women graduates of Niagara University that are really impressive all around town. Here she played Ruth Kelly, R.N. and was able to go seamlessly between the efficient nurse/receptionist role and the not-so-secret love interest of the younger doctor.

Nicholas Lama was the overworked (and probably underpaid) orderly, Duane Wilson, at the psych center and provided some of the broader comedic moments. Richard Kraemer played the younger doctor (Dr. Sanderson) with rapid changes in a four part role: pompous know-it-all, screw-up, suck up, and romantic interest of Nurse Kelly. It’s not easy to rapidly cycle through those “characters” but Kraemer does a fine job.

David Lundy as the senior psychiatrist, Dr. Chumley, had a more direct arc, from pompous know-it-all to nut case, and he was wonderful, bringing an intensity of gaze, body language, and speech. It wasn’t 100% “realistic” but in a play about an imaginary rabbit, we need a “larger than life” portrayal. Maintaining a consistency is very difficult to do in a play with many elements of farce, including mis-understandings along with rapid entrances and exits. Well done.

Betsy Bittar as Mrs. Chumley has a role similar to Nicholas Lama as the orderly Duane. Both are gravitational moons orbiting around Dr. Chumley, who is becoming more and more unhinged as the play progresses. But, it’s their job to stay “sane” and keep their centers so that we in the audience have some “normal” (and in this play that word is open to very loose interpretation) behavior by which to judge others.

Todd Fuller is more of a director than stage actor and Franklin LaVoie is more of a musician-story teller than stage actor, which may have led to their characters (Judge Gaffney and the Cab Driver, respectively) seeming just a bit apart from the action with perhaps the biggest problems in keeping the dialog moving along crisply.

The set by Paul Bostaph effectively uses the small space provided and with a clever hinged wall, we quickly go between the family home and the psychiatric center. The costumes by Carolyn Walleshauser are mostly consistent, but one small detail bothered my companion. While HARVEY may be timeless, in the era indicated by the ornate telephones on stage, the psychiatric nurse/receptionist would have worn white hose and white shoes, not stockings and heels. The lighting by Chris Cavanagh and the sound by Tom Makar (also the director) was up to their usual standards. The music selections by Steven Borowski were stellar and really set the mood from the moment you entered the theater.

Buffalo-four

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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