The New Theatre Restaurant delivers a charming production of “Harvey,” the World War II-era chestnut by Mary Chase that became such a phenomenon in its day that it claimed a Pulitzer Prize.
Much of that charm is attributable to the central performance of Charles Shaughnessy as Elwood P. Dowd, a Midwestern eccentric who insists that his companion is a 6-foot-tall rabbit that only he can see. Shaughnessy accepted the role on short notice after the production’s original star, Judge Reinhold, dropped out. But you’d never know it judging by the ease with which Shaughnessy performed Friday night.
Shaughnessy is British and here adopts a casual American accent that fits perfectly with his relaxed, good-humored performance. Elwood may be odd, but he’s thoroughly likable and seems to embody the often-quoted Will Rogers sentiment that, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
Director Dennis D. Hennessy surrounds Shaughnessy with strong supporting players, including stalwart Kansas City-based actors as well artists from Chicago and New York. Performances are solid across the board. This appears to be a somewhat condensed version of the play. The original is in three acts, but Hennessy finds a way to compress it into only two. The good news is that this compact production moves along at a nice clip and doesn’t seem particularly old-fashioned. For the benefit of those who never saw the Jimmy Stewart movie or sat through a high school production of this play, the plot has to do with a scheme cooked up by Elwood’s sister, Veta (Debra Bluford), and her daughter, Myrtle (Lena Mary Amato), to have Elwood committed to a psychiatric hospital. Once that goal is accomplished they can take possession of the house that legally belongs to Elwood, Myrtle can find an eligible husband, and Veta can take her proper place in “society.”
Nothing goes according to plan, of course. When Veta accompanies Elwood to the hospital, the young psychiatrist who handles the case mistakenly assumes that Veta is the one suffering from delusions and has her committed. Elwood, meanwhile, thoroughly charms Dr. Sanderson (Ryan Imhoff) and the pretty resident nurse, Miss Kelly (Emily Ariel Rogers). A comedy of errors unfolds, and the audience can sit back and enjoy the work of capable actors. Victor Raider-Wexler delivers an inspired comic performance as Dr. Chumley, who runs the hospital. A fine character actor, Raider-Wexler roots the performance in realistic human behavior no matter how ridiculous the storyline gets. The results are hilarious.
As Nurse Kelly, Rogers makes a charismatic impression in her New Theatre debut, exhibiting sharp comic timing and physical grace. The seasoned pros — Bluford, Gary Neal Johnson as Judge Gaffney and Dodie Brown as Mrs. Chumley — effortlessly fit into the ensemble. Imhoff’s attempts at humor as Dr. Sanderson seem a bit forced at times, but he brings a certain degree of magnetism to the stage. As Myrtle, Amato is unfussy and amusing.
Delivering solid supporting work are Kevin Fewell as a cab driver and Jason Miller as a hospital orderly. And it should be noted that this production is a milestone of sorts. In the small but memorable role of Mrs. Chauvenet, well-known female impersonator De De DeVille appears at the New Theatre for the first time. It’s not as if dinner theater audiences have never seen drag performances, but DeVille has long been associated with the city’s alternative theater scene, including the gone-but-not-forgotten Late Night Theatre. Kudos to Hennessy for bringing the talented DeVille onto a mainstream stage. The performance is quite good, by the way. Jason Coale’s scenic design is a handsome piece of work in which the home’s parlor and the hospital waiting room alternate on a turntable. Costumer Mary Traylor and lighting designer Randy B. Winder also do good work.
“Harvey” runs through April 6 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. For more information, call 913-649-7469 or go to NewTheatre.com.