The towering schizophrenic “Big Chief” Bromden — half Irish, half Native American — shuffles in a catatonic haze, sweeping the same corner of the gleaming linoleum floor. He is the symbol of a cracked identity — perhaps a broken nation — caught in the gears of an all encompassing machine of paranoid mental oppression.
He refers to it as “the combine”: a wired network of widespread surveillance, racial prejudice, entrenched economic injustice, and unchecked authority. But take heart, for enter stage left alpha male and dramatic catalyst Randal Patrick McMurphy (Joseph Cassese) who takes on the white coats with his explosive temperament and unbridled id. He levels his sights on Nurse Ratched (Sidney Fortner), the icy matriarch of the psych wing and the master of the humiliatingly undercutting comment.
A chorus of “acutes” pin their hopes on his stand against their collective castration. Yes, it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest performed on stage by local theater company The Gallery Players, who are celebrating their 49th Season. The production runs through Sunday, March 27 at The Gallery Players Theater, 199 14th Street (between 4th and 5th Avenues).
Come see them walk the line between outrage and insanity in eery verisimilitude — the theater is buried in the basement of an aging community center on 14th street resembling a state mental institution.
The production deserves a lot of credit for its committed ensemble of actors, expansive institutionalized looking set, and ambitious light design concept putting you into the mind of Big Chief (Jonathan Mesisca), the story’s narrator.
The primary difficulty comes with the Dale Wasserman’s adaption: the lost child between Ken Kesey’s celebrated novel (1962) and Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning film (1975, starring Jack Nicholson). The story doesn’t want to be confined to a realistic stage, and needs more to achieve the same psychedelic heights of the book as narrated through the eyes of the schizophrenic Big Chief.
Kesey sued the film’s producers for abandoning this narrative device and fixing McMurphy as the central figure. But the film succeeds because it is sparse and potent, ranging around the intimate corners of the institution and showing the inpatients oddly contrasted against the outside world.
The play reduces the action to the common area of the ward and relies on exposition to explain plot outcomes. It keeps the narration, but shoe horns in more plot points with the transference between McMurphy and the deferent intellectual inpatient Harding, along with several snapshot summaries of the other characters on the ward that are better shown than told.
The script is also dated. At one point McMurphy yells in outrage, “Horse apples!” (An attempt to avoid curse words in the 1963 production with Kirk Douglas?) McMurphy calls the African-American attendant who escorts him in “boy.” Scanlon laughingly calls Harding a “faggot” during group therapy. The mock marriage scene in the party section is reminiscent of Hair.
Granted, the program indicates the time is 1971, and the director chose pre-show music from 1970s classic rock, perhaps hinting to the audience that we were meant to return to a lost era? But still, the script has a way of serving these moments up as punchlines which can jangle the ear.
That said, in this production some chemistry is lost between leading players. McMurphy is played with a bulletproof swagger and Nurse Ratched with a stately, unflappable dignity. One is having a good laugh and the other is fairly annoyed, making them come off more like a disapproving mother to a misbehaving adult son rather than two master manipulators locking horns.
An occasionally lagging pace draws extra focus onto the supporting cast instead of forcing the ward to stand on their toes. When the stakes of survival get lost, the ensemble occasionally comes off as chain smoking, sexually frustrated men howling with approval at McMurphy’s grab ass, rather than desperate men looking for a hero.
The show has many standout moments. Harding’s monologue standing up for Nurse Ratched only to cave in by the end was arresting. McMurphy taking a patient off his imagined crucifix as he wept was moving. Billy Bibbit (Christopher James Russell) is rendered with a simple, earnest quality.
A spectacular night watchmen shuffles through his rounds and drinks the dregs from his flask, shading in the portrait of a monotonous institution left on auto pilot. And when two party girl friends of McMurphy burst on the scene, they tear a hole in the ward’s psychic fabric and the entire cast resonates with new energy.
Fans of the book and movie should come check out this production, if only to see what comes out on top. Some nice moments are there for the taking, even if the production inevitably hangs uncomfortably between a literary classic and an unforgettable film.
Nonetheless, the theme of individuality in the face of benevolent coercion remains current as we resign ourselves to online monitoring, telephone surveillance, and ever present security cameras capturing us in every public area.
So why not come see Big Chief’s Bromden’s combine get torn all to hell?
The Theater Rundown: The Gallery Players Present One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman. Directed by Mark Harborth
Where: The Gallery Players Theater, 199 14th Street (between 4th and 5th Avenues)
When: Through March 27. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Matinees Performances on Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm
Ticket Information: $18 for adults and $15 for senior citizens, students, and children 12 and under. Purchase tickets online here or call Ovationtix at 212-352-3101 (Phone hours: 9am-9pm weekdays, 10am-6pm weekends).
For Patrons with disabilities: The Gallery Players makes every effort to accommodate patrons with disabilities. Call their information line at 718-595-0547, Ext. 1 at least 3 days prior to your visit, and mention that you require assistance and the date of your reservation. Read more on the Accessibility page.