The Lovely Fellow

JIM PARSONS TAKES ON BROADWAY

[NEW YORK] The heat bounces back and forth between the pavement below and the sullen sun above in unrelenting waves. But in spite of the record-shattering temperature — 95-plus degrees and rising — the throngs that flock to Times Square radiate more excitement than seems reasonable. Just a few blocks away, on West 53rd Street, a crowd is jockeying for position, cordoned off on the sidewalk by a line of no-nonsense police barricades. Periodically, a just-the-facts-ma’am type strides by and tells people to bunch up closer to the stage door.

Then, without warning, the stage door opens and it’s him.

When actor Jim Parsons ’01 (MFA) steps onto the sidewalk, it turns out that the crowd really can press closer together … a whole lot closer. He is tall, pale (or is that stage make-up?) and gracious, but he’s on the move, signing autographs for those pressed against the metal cordons, not pausing for photos, nodding and smiling as a voice here calls out, “Jim!” and another yells, “Sheldon!” He just keeps moving, signing, nodding, signing, smiling, then Mr. No-Nonsense decides that’s enough, and escorts Parsons into the backseat of a waiting car, which speeds down the street, takes a right and is gone. The crowd — some bereft, some still chattering with excitement — scatters, clutching autographed “Harvey” programs and posters and Playbills. A few look wistfully in the direction of the car that whisked Parsons away, then slowly make their way back toward 7th Avenue.

Is there any doubt that Jim Parsons has hit the big time? There really shouldn’t be, what with the pair of Emmys he’s won for his role as Dr. Sheldon Cooper on TV’s “Big Bang Theory.” Certainly, his star turn on Broadway this summer as Elwood P. Dowd — a dreamy soul whose best friend is a 6-foot-3 ½-inch-tall white rabbit — proves that his career has legs.

The reviews have been outstanding: “Mr. Parsons carries the weight of a role immortalized on film by the inimitable James Stewart as lightly as Elwood does the hat and coat he keeps on hand for his furry companion,” said critic Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. “His quirky line readings and courtly, unfailingly chipper manner bring just the right mix of graciousness and oddball eccentricity,” gushed David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter.

At a mid-week matinee last July, Parsons lived up to, even surpassed, those stellar reviews. The play — which somewhat notoriously won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945 over Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” — is a charming period piece about an endearing oddball with a penchant for cocktails and, of course, that aforementioned furry, invisible bunny.

Parsons has an authentic niceness about him that made him a perfect fit for leading the cast of “Harvey.” Elwood P. Dowd wants nothing more than to truly connect with everyone he meets, from solicitors on the phone to sanitarium nurses to taxicab drivers. The actor’s timing and dynamic range served him well in his performance in the play, a gentle madcap comedy of errors in which Dowd’s sister, Veta (played by Jessica Hecht), attempts to have him committed to an institution and winds up locked up herself through a series of misunderstandings.

Through it all, the character maintains his fundamental sweetness. In answer to a question about what he does, the character replies: “Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars and have a drink or two, play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine, and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a lovely fellow.’”

Clearly, Parsons is in his element on stage, and to hear him tell it, he’s loved the spotlight since his breakout role as the Kolokolo Bird in a first-grade production of “The Elephant’s Child.”

“It’s come to hit me that it was some sort of divine intervention, because looking back, it crystallized a lot of desires for me. I’ve known from roughly that age that that’s what I wanted to do.” Of course, being center stage in bright yellow tights and a breastplate his mother made out of paper feathers didn’t hurt.

Parsons sees any number of parallels between the work he does on “Big Bang” and his longtime love for the stage, especially since the TV show is filmed before a live audience. “It’s so similar to doing theater, in a lot of ways. But it’s not like that thing with theater where you work and work and work on a play for four weeks, then little things really land, like plot lines and moments when the audience is right there. That always surprised me, but it surprises me more that it was a surprise to me. I mean, duh!” His work ethic clearly keeps him plenty busy; “Harvey” closed on Aug. 5, and he was back in Los Angeles taping “Big Bang” by Aug. 14.

Back in 2009, Parsons spoke at length with USD Magazine about his career trajectory. During that conversation, he waxed nostalgic about his time in New York, where he had moved immediately after completing his MFA at USD in 2001. “I miss New York in a lot of ways. As the saying goes, ‘there’s no place like it,’ and that’s really true. Even though it can be very hard.” But as far as developing a sense of home? “Well, I feel pretty comfortable anywhere that I’m working.”

Still, when he took his leave of Broadway for the second time — in 2011 he portrayed Tommy Boatwright in a production of “The Normal Heart” — and headed back to L.A., it’s easy to imagine that a little piece of him remained in the Big Apple, perhaps wearing a fedora with two holes cut in it, the better to fit the long floppy ears. — Julene Snyder