YCDS’s Harvey: The Comedy That Explores the Tragedy of Society

By: Elka Wiesenberg  |  April 18, 2018
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The lights dim in the Schottenstein Theatre, but the warm glow of the fireplace (and some stage lighting) invites you into the home of a wealthy family in the 1940s. You have entered the world of Harvey, a play written in 1944 by Mary Chase–the fourth woman to get a Pulitzer, in 1945, but only the second to have her work reenacted by YCDS, the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society.

Why was Mary Chase zocheh (worthy) to have the honor of her words being brought to life at Yeshiva College? According to YCDS director Lin Snider, besides for the factors of content, character, costume expenses, and set difficulties, what’s important about a play is its message. An audience member wants to laugh–and believe me, you’ll roll–but also to come out of a play with a deeper meaning to think about. And something to talk about with the date you wanted to impress, of course.

Harvey, like anything worth going to in the Heights, opens with a party. Vernon Dowd (Lavai Malamut-Salvaggio) is desperate to marry off his son Marvin (Herschel Seigel) to an eligible bachelorette. He pulls out all the stops for an elaborate party, inviting the singer Mr. Tewkesbury (Jonathan Roytenberg) and the highest of society, “Uncle” Oliver Chauvenet (Efraim Shacter), in the hopes of impressing someone rich with a single daughter. (Sounds a lot like the shidduch system, if you ask me.)

The only obstacle in Vernon’s social-climbing agenda: his brother Elwood. Elwood Dowd (YCDS President David Cutler) is as sweet as a five-year-old, and has the innocent manners and lack of social acuteness of one too. In contrast to his flamboyant brother Vernon and appearance-obsessed nephew Marvin, Elwood scarcely notices what others think of him. Elwood bounces around, introducing himself with a grand bow, a calling card, and a genuine smile, all the while accompanied by his best friend and constant companion Harvey.

Harvey is a six-foot-one-and-a-half white pooka (nope, still have no clue what that means). You would think that a towering rabbit would be the first thing that everyone notices in a room, much like an elephant. But as with an elephant in a room, if people see Harvey, they certainly give no indication of such. The only exception, of course, is Elwood, who beams as he introduces his best friend to his brother’s high society friends. There goes any chance of Marvin’s shidduch. Crazy breeds crazy, and no one wants to contaminate their family bloodlines with anyone from Elwood’s gene pool.

Vernon decides to take action after he and Marvin have a panic attack as an aftermath of the party disaster. It’s time to commit the delusional Elwood to an institution.

The set changes, and we are now introduced to a new set of characters. Let me interrupt the plot to discuss the set. The set, actually, interrupts the plot, so just going with that flow. In an interesting stylistic choice, set designer Zvi Teitelbaum explained that in an original draft of Harvey, curtains were used to transition from the mansion to the mental institution, and this is what he based his set off of. Instead of having two seperate sides of the stage for the two locations, there are 2.5 minutes between each one, while curtains are pulled up and down.

The sets themselves are beautiful. The mansion’s brick fireplace, old bookshelves, and finely upholstered furniture set the tone for a family that is respectable and wants to keep it that way. The mental institution is gray and almost bleak, with a giant Rorschach ink test reminding you of exactly what setting you find yourself locked in.

And what situation do we find ourselves in? Meet the illustrious Dr. Chumley’s team: the heart behind the asylum walls, Mr. Kalvin (Matthew Silkin); the muscles of the operation, Mr. Wilson (Gavriel Guttman); and the second-in-command brains, Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Matthew Shilat).

Hilarity ensues when a miscommunication between the institution’s staff, coupled with Sanderson’s unwarranted self-confidence in his own abilities, causes Vernon to end up in the nuthouse while Elwood walks free, Harvey at his side as he flounces into the mental institution, invites the staff to drinks, and leaves happily.

Dr. Julian Chumley (Yaakov Siev) himself gets involved with the case when a call to Vernon’s lawyer, Judge Omar Gaffney (Michael Caplan) confirms the mix-up. There is a wild chase while the staff hunts down Elwood, who in the meantime enjoys a pleasant chat with Chumley’s brother Bradley (Donny Fuchs) and searches for Harvey, who has gone missing.

The biggest moral dilemma is introduced with the question of injecting Elwood with Chumley’s Formula 977. (Drumroll and flashing lights, please. No, I’m not joking.) This formula will make Elwood stop seeing Harvey, solving many issues for the other characters. However, taxi driver E.J. Lofgren (Zvi Teitelbaum) informs us that the formula changes people; they change from the happy-go-lucky Elwoods of the world to normal people. People with impatience and short tempers and all the traits that make the world go round. Elwood is willing to take the formula, sacrificing his best friend, for the sake of his brother’s happiness. But will the other characters be able to go through with it?

Harvey brings to the spotlight many questions about humanity. What makes us “normal?” Who defines “reality?” What do we do when those we love for their individuality are not accepted by society for it?

One way to track the development of this question is through Chumley’s personal struggles regarding Elwood and Harvey. Siev’s character, he interprets, is a systematic person, a machine. Elwood and Harvey, though, cause “cracks to form” in the calculated doctor’s mind, as he begins to question his beliefs and his priorities. He hesitates to decide regarding the formula because he is trying to find a balance between maintaining his image as the world’s greatest psychiatrist and following his moral compass.

Harvey epitomizes important lessons regarding people who are different. In Cutler’s words, “Don’t throw people away. Work with them.”

In addition to its Halachic stamp of approval from Rabbi Yosef Blau, Harvey definitely deserves a gold star. The show is full of energy and comedic blows while punching you in the gut with empathy and insight. And as Cutler pointed out to me, YCDS has put a lot of effort into this show: “Set, rehearsals, acting, marketing; it’s a giant organism comprised of different parts.” Special shoutout to Stage Manager Chaviva Freedman here–I have now seen her in action, and it is is scary how much she and Assistant Stage Manager Elazar Krausz do. Same goes to the entire lighting/sound/set/props/costumes/graphics/marketing teams. The amount of work that has come together in a cohesive and enjoyable show is overwhelming.

The very only thing that YCDS’s Harvey is “lacking” is…“a three-handed assistant technical director.” (Benjy Kleiner, unfortunately two-handed assistant technical director.) Until someone that different is on set, though, I’d say this show was as unique as it gets–in the very best way.

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