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Theater Review

A Look Inside the American 'Cuckoo's Nest'

April 09, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — Time and "the times" aren't the same thing. We use the latter, blandly meaningless unit of measurement to generalize about an era present or past, the scent of something blowing in the wind.

Time has been only moderately kind to Ken Kesey's 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It's primarily an emblem of its times.

Kesey pitted a roughneck saint, Randle P. McMurphy, against Nurse Ratched, a bitch-goddess in starched whites. His vision of America hit readers--especially of high school and college age--like a call to arms against everything soul-sucking about American conformity. It was a parable with legs, its prose and meanings easy to read.

Since the early '60s, Dale Wasserman's stage version of the novel got around, too, though less indelibly than the 1975 movie, starring Jack Nicholson's adorable leer. The play began on Broadway in a 1963 production starring Kirk Douglas. (His son, Michael, later hit the jackpot producing the film.) Wasserman's revised and condensed version opened off-Broadway in 1971, with William Devane as McMurphy.

Now we have the current, walloping Steppenwolf Theater Company's revival, starring Gary Sinise, already a large hit in both Chicago and London. Its limited Broadway run continues through June 17, just long enough to enjoy a likely Tony Award or three.

For some of us, Kesey's story--narrated (like the play) by Chief Bromden, McMurphy's stoic angel of mercy--doesn't contain great mysteries in its fist. It's more a blunt instrument. Its rabble-rousing spirit relates to earlier projects favored by the supremely talented Steppenwolf ensemble: John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men," or Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead," with which Steppenwolf took New York by sheer theatrical force back in the '80s.

Even if you don't cherish the material, however, director Terry Kinney's staging is formidable.

At first glance, Sinise's McMurphy resembles Nicholson's, especially in the region of the eyebrows. But Sinise hews closer to Kesey's original concept. He looks like a logger, a brawler or a biker--like a guy who's kicked around the Northwest, in other words.

It's not a performance loaded with surprise; the wild-eyed Sinise has an intensity streak well-suited to McMurphy, but it can make his explosive big moments a little heavy, a little obvious. Maybe he's over-familiar from the movies, "Forrest Gump" among them. Yet Sinise is a solid anchor for this burly production. A few movies haven't dulled his stage technique. And he reveals the requisite tenderness in his scenes with Tim Sampson's moving Chief Bromden.

The surprise here lies in Amy Morton's crafty, restrained interpretation of Nurse Ratched, keeper of her variously cowed and lobotomized asylum patients. The role is what it is: a symbol of oppression run amok, as American as George Wallace or Kent State. Very wisely, Morton bides her time, playing Ratched's cards close to the vest.

Reedy, tall, physically unprepossessing, she lends a deceptive calm to such lines as, "You must follow the rules." Kesey's conception of Ratched always had a crude streak; the character is a nightmare vision of castrating womanhood, and she practically goads McMurphy into a sexual assault. Sidewindingly, Morton does everything a smart performer can do to make Ratched's motives and tactics ambiguous.

It's a nice contrast to the production's overall bullying effectiveness. Scenic designer Robert Brill's semicircular white-tiled day room provides plenty of water-stained wall space for Act 1 slide projections by Sage Marie Carter, heavy on the chain-link fence and waterfall imagery. These accompany Bromden's voice-over musings to his dead father.

Steppenwolf's timing is unerring: Just enough years have passed since the movie's release to disinvite undue comparison. Wasserman's stage adaptation does the job, even while playing into Kesey's heavy-handedness. Like Ratched, Kesey (echoed by Wasserman) goads his audience into blood-lust and, in the fate of poor man-child Billy Bibbit (Eric Johner), this "gritty" parable reveals a sentimental streak a mile wide. In any medium, "Cuckoo's Nest" trades in some hackneyed notions of "crazy" saints and "normal" sinners. (The '60s couldn't get enough of 'em.)

But this is where Steppenwolf's patented theatrical whirlwind-dom comes in. Sinise and company give the McMurphy/Ratched smack-down all they can. It's an extremely good revival, even if the source material strikes you as more time-bound than timeless.

*

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Steppenwolf Theater Company at the Royale Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York City. Through June 17. $30-$75. (800) 432-7250.

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