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June 15, 2012

TT: Oh, so pleasant

In today's Wall Street Journal I review the Broadway revival of Harvey and the off-Broadway premiere of Storefront Church. Here's an excerpt.

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Jim-Parsons-in-Harvey-jpg.jpgMary Chase's "Harvey," the story of a tippling bachelor named Elwood P. Dowd who claims that his best friend is a six-foot-tall rabbit whom nobody else can see, opened on Broadway in 1944, won a Pulitzer Prize, ran for four years and was turned into a hit movie starring Jimmy Stewart. You can't get much more popular than that. But even though "Harvey" continues to be mounted by community theater groups, it hasn't been seen on Broadway since 1970, when Stewart and Helen Hayes co-starred in the play's first and last major revival. Like most American stage comedies of the Forties, it's now thought to be an agreeable but lightweight period piece. So why on earth is the Roundabout Theatre Company putting it on at Studio 54? Is the economy that bad? Or might there be more to "Harvey" than meets the eye?

Jim Parsons, the star of "The Big Bang Theory," is playing Elwood P. Dowd, which says much--maybe everything--about why the Roundabout is doing "Harvey." Big guns from Hollywood, after all, are an even bigger part of what keeps Broadway afloat these days. It doesn't matter whether or not they know anything about stage acting: All they have to do to sell tickets by the shovelful is show up. Mr. Parsons, who has plenty of stage experience, does much more than that, but he's still giving the kind of affably superficial performance that you'd expect from a sitcom star....

It seems a safe bet that Scott Ellis, the director of this revival, has nudged the other members of the cast in the direction of comic caricature (though I doubt that Carol Kane needed much nudging). Jessica Hecht's fey, fluttery performance as Elwood's sister would be more distinctive if everyone else weren't trying so aggressively--and successfully--to get laughs....

John Patrick Shanley rang the gong eight years ago with "Doubt," following it up in 2006 with the similarly impressive "Defiance." It subsequently emerged that these plays were to be the first two installments in a trilogy about "American hierarchy" called "Church and State." Now comes the grand finale, "Storefront Church," in which Mr. Shanley, having cast a cold eye on corruption in the Roman Catholic Church and the Marine Corps, turns his attention to the fertile field of politics.

Like its predecessors, "Storefront Church" is a morality play whose characters inadvertently find themselves ensnared in a complex dilemma. This one is triggered by the Reverend Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones), a mystically inclined Pentecostal preacher who borrows money that he can't repay from Jessie (Tonya Pinkins), a good-hearted, ill-educated woman who happens to know Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito, lately of "Breaking Bad"), an up-and-coming Bronx politician. Donaldo long ago turned his back on the storefront churches of his childhood and now worships at the altar of expediency. When Jessie goes to him for help, she unwittingly puts him in a position to be bribed by a banker (Jordan Lage) who'd like nothing better than to stuff a pol in his pocket.

Unlike the intermission-free "Doubt" and "Defiance," both of which are as taut as a garrote, "Storefront Church" is a two-act play that would profit from a modest amount of trimming. In addition, Mr. Shanley also indulges in the same aren't-they-adorable ethnic humor that made his screenplay for "Moonstruck" slightly sticky. Not to worry, though, for no sooner does he rev the engine than "Storefront Church" starts roaring down the track....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted June 15, 2012 12:00 AM

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