Shock treatment figures prominently in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel performs its own, happily more benign form of the procedure on the audience. The play is an emotional button-pusher, wringing tears and cheers with mechanical precision. Manipulative and melodramatic it may be, but in the hands of an expert ensemble cast led by Gary Sinise, the new Broadway revival from the Steppenwolf Theater Co. is also irresistible. It should prove a strong B.O. draw in its limited run; with an edgy, respected film name at its center, it’s this season’s equivalent of last season’s “True West.”
Kesey’s 1962 novel was an early harbinger of the countercultural explosion of the later 1960s. A celebration of anarchy and rebelliousness suggesting that the natural response to American culture’s warped values was a fine madness, the story casts its central character, the wild redneck Randle P. McMurphy, as a Christ-like figure who is sacrificed on the cross of conformity and control. There are other layers of blurry allegory involved in the stage and film adaptations, too, since McMurphy’s death comes at the hands of the Indian giant whose freedom his sacrifice purchases. And the story’s famous villain, Nurse Ratched, is a castrating mother figure who adds her own layer of psychological symbolism to the mix.
It’s best to set aside all considerations of the play’s mildewing layers of significance as you watch the crackling Broadway production, and simply let the story’s cheery anti-authoritarian message and its heart-tugging pathos wash over you. It’s rather late in the day to be chortling at the odd antics of the mentally disturbed, but to approach the material with one’s reason and sensitivity barometer intact is futile.
The actors, in fact, bring layers of emotional truth to their performances that rein in the lovable-lunatic element to a degree. As Billy Bibbit, the virgin with a mother problem and a pronounced stutter, Eric Johner is particularly affecting, his lanky figure constricting into a turtle-like hunch whenever Nurse R., chief therapist and torturer, bears down on him with her smothering smile.
Ross Lehman, as the former group ringleader who has his own female trouble, and Alan Wilder, Danton Stone and Rick Snyder as the ward’s other mixed nuts, all fill their roles capably without condescending to them. Along with Billy, Tim Sampson’s Chief Bromden is the chief victim of Nurse Ratched’s persecution. The role is more fully developed in the stage version than in the film — scenes are divided by voiceover monologues that take us inside the Chief’s disturbed mind — and Sampson’s performance is a subtle, powerful and honestly moving one (he is the son of Will Sampson, who played the Chief in the film).
Terry Kinney has orchestrated the play’s chaotic set pieces effectively — the rousing first-act climax when McMurphy finally wins over his fellow inmates to rebellion, the anarchic party that ends in tragedy — and also brought fine focus to some of the smaller ones, particularly the relationship between Sinise’s McMurphy and the Chief. Tears may spring to even the most cynical eyes with embarrassing regularity.
The play’s main conflict is of course between McMurphy, the anointed savior of the ward’s cowed crowd of patients, and the quietly domineering Nurse Ratched, played by Amy Morton with a chilling placidity that slyly suggests Ms. R has been regularly dipping into the stock of anti-depressants. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher put their indelible stamps on these roles in the Milos Forman film version, but Sinise and Morton, while clearly taking inspiration from their film predecessors, add new inflections to their interpretations.
In contrast with Nicholson’s coiled-snake intensity, Sinise’s McMurphy is a happily extroverted showboater here, strutting and waddling about, slapping his belly for comic emphasis. It’s an energetic, funny and highly theatrical performance that contrasts neatly with the eerie calm of Morton’s Nurse Ratched. This character, a combination of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Mengele and Joan Crawford encased in starch, is almost risibly sadistic — a figure of paranoiac fantasy — but Morton plays her with such soft-toned temperance that you almost forget it.
As it soldiers toward its tragic climax, Wasserman’s play passes the pathos mark, curves around bathos and threatens to invent some new -athos before it concludes. It may lose the interest of more sophisticated theatergoers well before the final curtain, but the crisp pacing, well-integrated ensemble work and clinically calibrated doses of laughter and tears will provide a pleasurable ride for most audiences.