Ken Kesey’s countercultural tale of Randall P. McMurphy — aka Jesus Christ with a rap sheet — inciting revolution among the wackos in a state mental hospital lost most of its metaphoric and political wallop when Dale Wasserman turned the meandering novel into a melodramatic, well-made play with misogynistic undertones. But with its multitude of character roles, satanic female authority figure and the chance for an audience to watch thousands of volts go through the manly hero’s skull, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is still a great vehicle for visceral theatrical thrills. Thanks mainly to a revved-up star turn from a hyperkinetic Gary Sinise and a stunning set from Robert Brill, Broadway prospects look boffo for Terry Kinney’s highly commercial Steppenwolf Theater Co. revival — assuming the star remains attached.
When Kinney and Sinise first dreamed up this project, their first inclination was to commission a new adaptation of a novel in which Kesey made the case that the folks judged insane by a repressive society are really just victims of the government’s thought police. But Kesey sold the dramatic rights to become king of the hippies years ago, and anyone doing this show is still obliged to perform Wasserman’s version.
Since it includes the internal monologue of the Chief, the play is arguably more akin to the novel than the more famous screenplay. But Wasserman still crafted a textbook dramatic world of moral absolutes and savvy plot twists in which the perfect “Mac” gives up his life for his crazy friends and Nurse Ratched is ready to squeeze every nutty testicle in her reach.
If a trendy Las Vegas casino can include the bust of Lenin in its decor, it’s surely not surprising that the once intensely personal “Cuckoo’s Nest” can be turned into a huge theatrical spectacle, complete with projections, pyrotechnics , ear-splitting f/x and a single hospital setting so white and huge that the eyeballs hurt from 150 minutes of exposure. Such an epic transmogrification will doubtless give pause to the purists among Kesey’s fans — but this is an era that loves to reduce the 1960s to iconography.
Despite the size of the canvas and an apparent determination to avoid any measure of subtlety, Kinney has done his damnedest to be true to Kesey’s uncontrollable spirit. Even though it sometimes fights the script, Amy Morton’s splendid, controlled performance as Nurse Ratched fleshes out the devil in the white dress far more than Louise Fletcher did. Amazingly, Morton makes us believe that the twisted sister actually cares for her patients in her own dangerous way. And when she enters covered in the blood of Billy Bibbit, you feel more than a twinge of sympathy. Given the parameters of the text, this is a remarkable feat.
Perhaps because Hollywood throws so many introspective villains his way, Sinise approaches McMurphy with so much energetic abandon that you worry his voice won’t survive the Chicago run. Spouting a cheery redneck accent, Sinise screams and hollers around the stage, dragging out reactions from the slew of character actors that Steppenwolf has lined up to play the other poor saps left to the care of Ratched. Despite its vitality, this generous performance allows other performers their individual chances to compete with the scenery.
Even the best performers on the planet have to reconcile these characters with archetype, but this cast does its considerable best. In particular, Eric Johner makes an appropriately gibbering Billy Bibbit, the always terrific Ross Lehman is a funny and smooth Dale Harding and Tim Sampson is an introspective Chief. (Sampson’s father played Bromden in the Milos Forman movie.)
Kinney uses the enormous available resources to engineer some delicious set pieces. When Mac gets the juice, we feel his pain, and when the Chief picks up the power box at the show’s ripping climax, it feels like the theater is about to explode. But Kinney hasn’t solved the problems of the Indian’s introspective monologues. The trippy projections of waterfalls and the rest are terrific, but the device could go much further and cut some of the realistic treacle out of the traditional scenes.
With title recognition, a star turn and plenty of thrills, cheap and otherwise, “Cuckoo” should have broad commercial appeal. It’s a genre piece that won’t fully escape its limitations unless Wasserman can be coaxed into an overall reworking (note to Dale: it would be worth it). But this is still an accessible and gripping theatrical ride, and the entire Chi run is sold out.