Raw and thrilling theatricality is erupting at the Royale Theatre - and for this kind of experience, wrapped up in its unshowy but quietly virtuoso acting, you can forgive a lot. Even a play that barely rises above the better shores of mediocre.
But this performance is fantastic, and for that matter the subject matter, at the very least, is intriguing.
Think - it is doubtless terrifying to find yourself in a madhouse if you're mad. But imagine what it's like if you're not!
Yet that is the choice of Randle P. McMurphy, the rebellious hero of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest," who, finding himself in a prison work camp, thinking it would be a soft option, gets himself diagnosed as a potential psychopath and committed to a state mental hospital.
The story was first a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, then a year later was made into an unsuccessful Broadway play by Dale Wasserman, starring Kirk Douglas. It finally turned up as a 1975 Oscar-winning movie vehicle for Jack Nicholson directed by Milos Foreman.
Now it's a Broadway vehicle for Gary Sinise. No, that's not quite fair. It became a vehicle for Gary Sinise and Chicago's illustrious Steppenwolf Theater, for this staging is conceived as an ensemble piece with a soloist.
Wasserman's revised Steppenwolf script is apparently based on the later and very successful off-Broadway version of 1971, which ran for more than 1,000 performances, and it is certainly closer to the Kesey novel than the movie screenplay.
Kesey and Wasserman struck a very appropriate note for their time: the rebel nonconformist fights the system. And wins. Or loses. Or a bit of both.
McMurphy is certainly crazy like a fox, but his craziness is just as certainly uncertifiable. As soon as he gets into his mental home, he starts to organize the inmates and flaunt the rigid regulations.
McMurphy fights for the patients' right to watch the World Series on TV and even conjures a party with booze and gals, without the knowledge of Nurse Ratchet, the soft-spoken, firm-minded head nurse.
He falls afoul of Ratchet and srikes up a strange friendship with one of ward's seemingly catatonic inmates, a huge, impassive Native American, Chief Bromden.
This is the kind of ensemble play the Steppenwolf does so well - you might recall its stage adaptation of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" a few seasons back, with this same star, Sinise and same director, Terry Kinney.
Neither Kinney nor his actors can do much here to get the first act moving at any real pace. But in the second act, once the battle lines of the fight to the death between McMurphy and Ratchet are fully established, play and performance both take on an electric urgency.
Many people have their own memories of the movie, but the magnificent Sinise is quite different from Nicholson -Nicholson was frantic, Sinise is antic.
He is gentler, more playful, less complex than the taunting, idiosyncratic Nicholson, and as much a victim as victimizer. But then, director Kinney has made that battle royal between two nemeses, much more evenly balanced.
As played with exquisite delicacy and nuance by the implacable Amy Morton, Ratchet portrays not only bureaucratic rigidity but also Establishment values. You want and even expect Sinise to come out on top in this dance of death, but the result is by no means a done deal.
Apart from Sinise and Morton, the rest of the cast is as perfect as anyone has the right to expect - these are lovely actors and Kinney coaxes the best out of them.
Whom to mention? Whom not to? A word of praise for Tim Sampson's almost inanimate power as Chief Bromden (as a sidelight, his father played the same role in the movie!)
Marrian Mayberry is enchantingly enthusiastic as the good-time girl with the good-time name of Candy Starr. Then there is Ross Lehman, fascinating as the patient who can mention Kafka, and Eric Johner, nicely sensitive as the virginal and stammering mother's boy, Billy.
Before there was Starbucks, there was Steppenwolf, the caffeinated theater company that performs with the kick of a triple espresso. Whenever this Chicago-based troupe has visited Manhattan, you could always expect the island to jangle a little more intensely.
Whether presenting the feuding families of Sam Shepard (''True West,'' ''Buried Child''), the struggling Okies of John Steinbeck (''The Grapes of Wrath'') or the screeching junkies of Lanford Wilson (''Balm in Gilead''), the Steppenwolf Theater Company found an atavistic energy in the all-American outcast.
So it seems more than fitting that, for its 25th-anniversary season, the troupe should take on ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' the classic tale of wild and crazy guys cutting loose in a mental institution. Why, then, does the show that opened last night at the Royale Theater go down like a glass of skim milk?
The production, which has previously been seen in Chicago and London, features two of the company's most accomplished and best-known veterans as its director (Terry Kinney) and star (Gary Sinise). Dale Wasserman's script, adapted from Ken Kesey's 1962 cult novel, is filled with opportunities for lusty Steppenwolf-style antics: guys playing basketball in their underwear, a pharmaceutical cocktail party, electric shock treatments and plenty of brawls with rigid authority figures.
Yet despite a full-throttle performance from Mr. Sinise and top-of-the-line production values, ''Cuckoo's Nest'' mostly feels just cute instead of confrontational. It pain stakingly restores the fablelike, schematic simplicity of Mr. Wasserman's script, an aspect largely erased from Milos Forman's much-awarded film version (1975) starring Jack Nicholson.
The results confirm why the original novel is classified under Young Adult in my local library. ''Cuckoo's Nest'' is a tale of rebellion for adolescent boys. There's no confusing the good guys (childlike men) with the bad guys (rule-enforcing women). And its rambunctious but pure-hearted hero, Randle P. McMurphy (Mr. Sinise), might as well be wearing a white hat.
You can see why actors like Mr. Sinise, Mr. Nicholson and Kirk Douglas would fall in love with the role. (Mr. Douglas played McMurphy in the original, short-lived Broadway staging of Mr. Wasserman's adaptation in 1963.) A bawdy brawler who gets himself checked into a mental institution to avoid the work duty of a prison sentence, McMurphy is meant to be a cyclonic life force.
He's a holy bad boy, a two-fisted Christ figure with a runaway sex drive. And when he laughs, according to the novel, ''it's free and loud, and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it's lapping against the walls all over the world.'' That's the sound of freedom, fellas. No wonder it stirs up those sad-sack inmates into acting like men before the repressive Nurse Ratched (Amy Morton), who rules the ward with her smile of steel.
That laugh is crucial in the playing of McMurphy, of course. It's part of what cinched the Oscar for Mr. Nicholson, whose visceral roar really did seem like an open invitation to anarchy.
Mr. Sinise's version is lighter -- more purely hedonistic and friendly, without the unsettling wildness with which Mr. Nicholson blurred conventional notions of sanity. With biceps and beer belly bulging and a good ol' country accent, Mr. Sinise offers up a McMurphy whose heart is as undeniably gold as his neck is red.
This McMurphy has the adrenaline to dominate the stage, all right. Mr. Sinise, whose satyr's smile is truly infectious, can't seem to take a step without stomping. Even confined to a straitjacket, he's a white-hot perpetual motion machine.
But there's no shading to the character, any more than there is to Ms. Morton's rigid nurse. She suggests an unmodulated kid's-eye view of a stern, sexless schoolteacher, and you appreciate more than ever the wonders that Louise Fletcher worked with a thankless part in the film. It is also hard to overlook the misogyny of a play in which most of the inmates seem to have been damaged by mutilating mothers and wives and are now under Ratched's thick thumb.
Even the rape of the American Indian by the United States government is paralleled to the wife-dominated mixed marriage that produced the ward's most formidable-looking patient, Chief Bromden (the imposing Tim Sampson, the son of Will Sampson, who played the same part in the film). And the only decent women in the work are -- wouldn't you know it? -- prostitutes, played with sunny cheer by Mariann Mayberry and Sarah Charipar.
Any portrayal of a mental ward runs the risk of turning the inmates into a parade of exaggerated figures defined by their tics. Mr. Kinney doesn't avoid the problem, especially when you see the characters seated in a line across the stage for group therapy sessions.
Count 'em off: the stutterer, the twitcher, the screamer, the catatonic. They're embodied by an appealing group of performers, including Ross Lehman, Eric Johner and Alan Wilder. Probably too appealing, since they're as comfy a coterie of eccentrics as the barflies of ''Cheers.'' K. Todd Freeman, a fine actor, is hamstrung as a wimpy doctor, while John Watson Sr. injects a subtle breath of authenticity as a hard-drinking night watchman.
Unlike the film, the stage version of ''Cuckoo's Nest'' retains the framing narration of Chief Bromden in voice-overs. Curiously, it's in these annotative interludes that the production has the strongest pull.
This has much to do with the lighting (Kevin Rigdon) and projections (Sage Marie Carter), which transform Robert Brill's excellent claustrophobic set into a melting sand castle. Crazy, man. Otherwise, there is little to jar the senses in this disappointingly sane ''Cuckoo's Nest.''
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.