One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
January 13, 2006
What happens when one person stands up against authority? What happens when an established authority is corrupt? What is the nature of sanity and insanity? What is the nature of dependency? Dale Wasserman’s play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, based on the famous 1960s subversive novel by Ken Kesey, seeks to answer Big Questions such as these by telling a story set in a hyper-institutional setting, the dayroom in a state mental hospital. Since the patients on the ward are declaratively “cuckoo,” and the staff and medical team are declaratively “sane,” the story gives Kesey a perfect opportunity to turn things on their head. In a lesser work, I expect that the sane would be revealed as loony and the crazy would be revealed to be sane, but fortunately, Cuckoo's Nest is much too complex and interesting for such simple binary thinking. Unfortunately, the current production at the Charlie Pineapple Theatre Company in Brooklyn seems undercooked; all the flavors of this complex play haven’t been fully explored and developed.
In the state mental hospital where the story is set, Nurse Ratched controls her brood of stuttering or tragically insecure or underconfident or hallucinating or mute and deaf or just plain catatonic cuckoo birds by keeping them in a very controlled cage, which she calls a “therapeutic environment.” Although she claims that the hospital is a democracy controlled by the patients themselves, the Nurse keeps her boys on a tight daily routine of taking medication, working, and participating in group therapy. Everything in their world is scheduled. Additionally, she requires them to write in a log whenever one of them says something controversial, and humiliates them in group therapy. To keep them from getting out of hand, Ratched holds the threat of electro-shock therapy over their heads. Even the ward’s doctor, Dr. Spivey, follows most of Ratched’s suggestions.
Nurse Ratched’s world changes when the hospital admits a new patient, Randall P. McMurphy, a convict who gets to escape a work farm as long as he is admitted to an asylum for treatment. In his mind, if he can pull it off—serve his time hanging out with the crazies—he’ll be a free man soon and won’t have to go back to jail or do manual labor. Unfortunately, while he’s in the hospital, McMurphy isn’t “sane” enough to know not to ruffle the other birds’ feathers, and he doesn’t do his time quietly. He discovers that Ratched’s methods of controlling her patients are more than he can bear, and he enters into battle with her for control of the ward.
It’s worth mentioning here that a strength of the script is that it’s not crystal clear whether McMurphy can’t stand seeing grown men being treated like children, or whether he needs to overthrow Ratched because she’s corrupt, or because he has a chronic problem with authority that works against him. It’s also not clear whether Nurse Ratched’s treatments are truly therapeutic to the other patients in the hospital; Ratched’s goal may be to keep them insane and under control, to clip their wings, not to help them fly confidently out of the nest.
As McMurphy and Ratched, Jerry Broome and Cidele Curo bear much of the burden of the show. They are at war for control of the ward and must be the leaders onstage for the entire play. As McMurphy, Broome works hard. He gives the part a lot of energy. His work pulls from famous performances by Jack Nicholson and Gary Sinise, something that didn’t bother me at all but annoyed the hell out of my companion. I suspect that when I saw the performance, he simply wasn’t there yet, hadn’t discovered all of the levels and nuances available to him. As Ratched, Curo takes on the challenge of being a believable villain. Smartly, she fully convinced me that she had her patients’ best interests at heart—or at least really wanted them to think she did. She also conveyed the frustration of a leader who has to regain control and will succumb to corruption to restore her power. Again, however, her moments were not all specific enough to make for a great performance.
As Billy Bibbett, the young, stuttering Mama’s Boy, Brian Leider doesn’t hold back. I commend his work as an actor trying to convey a physical and mental disability convincingly while maintaining the drama. His performance reminded me of Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys. I could see the actor behind the character, but I could also see the character clearly enough to get the point.
George Stonefish’s Chief Bromden, certainly the central loon of the play, and the character who makes the most dramatic transformation, always held my interest. Director Mark VanDerBeets’s choice to have his monologues to the audience delivered in voiceover makes later revelations about his disability more interesting. Visually, it’s disconcerting to see such a large man so powerless, so helpless and hopeless. Like all characters in this drama, Chief is a symbol as well as a specific man, and Stonefish rightly chooses to emphasize his relationship with McMurphy, his inner conflict, and his drive to regain his own strength.
So, what went wrong? From the first moments of the play, when two attendants, played by Michael Glover and Jesse Perez, enter the dayroom to mess with the Chief and establish the climate of the institution, I had a sense that the production was probably going to be unsuccessful. The pace is too slow from that first scene, and the play needs more action, more immediacy, to really work as a show. Under VanDerBeets’s direction, there is too much empty time onstage. The actors behave as if they have all the time in the world to make their point, a huge problem in a three-hour play. Because the piece lacks immediacy, it takes too long to get anywhere interesting.
To put it simply, despite the potential of the play and the exciting complexity of the story, for much of the time, I was, frankly, bored. Since I saw the play opening weekend, I hope it was simply undercooked at the time and will come to fruition during the run.