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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Gary Sinise in
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Let's assume that Gary Sinise, a smart man, truly believes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a worthy play and that using his considerable clout as an actor to bring the Steppenwolf production to Broadway (after a London stop at the RSC) isn't a blatantly cynical act. Or maybe Sinise, because he is so savvy, has reservations about Dale Wasserman's 1963 adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel but figures the enraged mental-hospital inmate Randle P. McMurphy is a showy role and a proven audience-pleaser that will earn revenue to enable the theater company he founded 26 years ago with Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney to continue its genuinely adventurous pursuits more comfortably.

Whatever his rationale, it isn't good enough to excuse the resurrection of destructively off-kilter comedy-drama that long ago outlived its usefulness, granting provisionally that it could ever have been considered useful. At the time when Kesey put down his thoughts about browbeaten patients provoked to rebel against an authoritarian head nurse, he was widely quoted as saying that he'd done it for the money--and it looked it. Maybe not to everybody, since it iterated an attitude towards the iniquities of contemporary society that the hippie generation was just beginning to manifest, with good reason. That vociferous segment of the American public could take Kesey's pocket-money endeavor as signal validation of a need for sentient folks to confront an out-of-touch, out-of-control government. But in 2001, when '60s hotheads have long since cooled, there's nothing of intellectual or emotional value in the Kesey-by-way-of-Wasserman vision. Today, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest seems just another of the "loonies-are-saner-than-the-officials" variations that had an understandable vogue 40 years back but are now significant only as telltale period pieces. The work is a tin shack of dime-a-dozen clichés, predictable at every turn. Everything about it is stacked as high as garbage in a landfill, beginning with the head nurse's giveaway name: She's called Nurse Ratched, which, of course, is meant to conjure both "wretched" and, as a line of dialogue lays out explicitly, "rat shit."

Nurse Ratched (Amy Morton), who has as much chance of attaining audience understanding as Monica Lewinsky has of being invited to the Bush White House, rules over a state hospital day room in the Pacific Northwest. Adhering strictly to the rules and autocratically altering them when she feels she must, she keeps the patients intimidated and docile. Into her frosty domain bursts Randle P. McMurphy, having agreed to an insanity charge to get around jail time for a minor offense. McMurphy can become obstreperous at the drop of a restraining belt, but he also realizes with a never-explained psychological vision that the only thing wrong with his fellow detainees is a lack of consideration. In the case of Chief Bromden (man-mountain Tim Sampson), a schizophrenic native-American who presumably is deaf, McMurphy quickly intuits that a few sticks of chewing gum may bring his chum around.

Reckoning that something closer to revolution is necessary to rouse the others to act on their own behalf, he goes about stirring things up in whatever way he can. One of his plans leads him to throw a nocturnal party in the day-room to which he invites two good-time girls from his raunchy past. One of them, the unsubtly named Candy Starr (Mariann Mayberry), is included on the guest list as a potential date for shy, mommy-clinging Billy Bibbit (Eric Johner), whose moniker is a match for his debilitating stutter. When the boozy bash is halted by Guess Who on a nighttime prowl and poor Billy is caught in flagrante delight-o, he does something rash that leads to McMurphy's downfall but also to Chief Bromden's spiritual and actual liberation.

As One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest goes about its ludicrous misunderstanding of psychiatric practice and its willful, all-but-criminal skewing of psychiatric theory, perhaps in the cause of building a withering metaphor for citizens oppressed by the state, everything you think will happen does happen. Will Chief Bromden's deafness prove to be a guise? When lobotomy is mentioned as a last-resort method of subduing violent patients, do we guess that the operation will eventually be performed on someone? When McMurphy stages his blowout, will Nurse Ratched come in at the very moment the party reaches its noisiest level? Given the opportunity to flee through an unlocked window, will McMurphy shilly-shally until it's too late? Will Nurse Ratched prove in a late-in-the-proceedings hissy fit that, of all the crazies, she's the craziest? Just guess what the answer is to all of these rhetorical questions.

If there's anything to be said in favor of director Terry Kinney's work here, it's that he and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon--along with Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who've provided the original music and sound design, and projection designer Sage Marie Carter--have devised a clever way to indicate the disturbing noise and images that push

Eric Johner, Gary Sinise, K. Todd Freeman,
and Amy Morton in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
at the edges of Chief Bromden's tormented mind. The play begins with a sound-and-light show erupting against the white walls of Robert Brill's set. The effect is that of a grainy film noir running constantly through the brain, and it's eerily persuasive.

But there's little to be said for the acting and direction. Steppenwolf got itself on the map as a company chockfull of actors able and eager to get physical the instant lights bump up. And Sinise, who's been saying that he was ready for a change from the more cerebral characters he's been playing, apparently thought McMurphy's physicality was just the ticket. Well, he sure is active here, from the moment he barrels through the day room doors. He goes so far as to flail his arms about and pull up his T-shirt to play paradiddles on his belly, but he doesn't bring many colors to the pandering role.

The same can be said of the rest of the cast, perhaps the most over-the-top ensemble since Not About Nightingales was in town. These actors might be cut a little slack, given how poorly written their parts are. Most of them with, evidently with Kinney's encouragement, do what actors almost always do when called upon to play mentally-challenged characters: They settle on a single, identifying shtick and then repeat it with little or no variation for two hours. The miscreants include the aforementioned Johner, Ross Lehman, Alan Wilder, Rick Snyder, Danton Stone, Misha Kuznetsov, and Bill Noble; jointly they're a good argument for a moratorium on stage lunatics.

It goes without saying that Amy Morton is up against it as Nurse Ratched. (Remember that Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for this role in the 1975 movie.) There are about as many humanizing lines for Ratched to speak as the wicked queen gets in Snow White. Even at that, it seems that an actress should be able to find ways to play against the lines so that the character's villainy might become less obvious, more insidious. Mariann Mayberry and Sarah Chariper admirably throw themselves into the spirit of things as the two party-down femmes. But the one actor to maintain his dignity is Sampson--who, incidentally, is playing the part that his father filled in the Jack Nicholson-led film version of Cuckoo's Nest.

A pox on the enterprise. The really cuckoo aspect of this Nest is that anyone tried to present it with a straight, sane face.


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