NEW YORK, April 30 -- A new production by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" has arrived on Broadway with Gary Sinise as the real or make-believe madman who leads an inmate rebellion against inhuman treatment in a state mental institution.
Jack Nicholson put his stamp on the role of Randle P. McMurphy in the Oscar-winning 1976 Milos Forman film version of Ken Kesey's novel pitting McMurphy against the emasculating Nurse Ratched, but Sinise has his own splendid interpretation of the character that gives the play an unexpected freshness.
Sinise is less looney and deviously menacing than Nicholson was as McMurphy, presenting him instead as a swaggering, high voltage physical presence whose cunning is disguised by a good ol' boy camaraderie. His McMurphy is a con man with a heart of gold and an underlying naivete that makes the character's tragic fate all the more regrettable.
"In movies, I've played a lot of intense, sort of darker figures," said Sinise in an interview before the play opened.
"With McMurphy, I had to get rid of that stuff and do a kind of acting I used to do all the time -- free and fun and big-hearted -- but that a lot of people haven't seen me do before. There's an innocence to McMurphy that's really endearing. He sees life in clean, clear terms, and he's the ultimate American rebel/hero."
This production at the Royale Theater is a strong revival of the drama playwright Dale Wasserman ("Man of La Mancha") created from Kesey's 1962 cult novel, and marks Sinise's first appearance on Broadway since 1990 when he won a Tony Award nomination for his performance in "The Grapes of Wrath," another Steppenwolf production.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's" first production on Broadway in 1963 starring Kirk Douglas as McMurphy was a flop, but a rewritten version staged Off-Broadway in 1971 with William Devane ran for four years. It had a 5-year run in San Francisco and similar long runs in Boston, London, Paris and many other cities worldwide. It has been translated into 32 languages and averages about 150 stagings a year.
The Steppenwolf Company, of which Sinise was a co-founder in 1976, is marking its Silver Anniversary with this production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The revival comes to New York from a triumphant limited run in London with the same cast, including Amy Morton as Nurse Ratched, whose rigid rule of the hospital is overturned -- for a time -- by McMurphy.
Ratched is a thankless role played with frigid authority by Louise Fletcher in the film version of the novel. Morton, a tall and not unattractive blonde, is every bit as asexual in the role but is unable to give it much dimension. She plays it too unflappably, without any visible reaction to the threat to her authority represented by McMurphy.
McMurphy, a convicted brawler, has allowed himself to be sent to the institution willingly to avoid work duty of a prison sentence, not realizing he can't ever leave unless he is declared cured by the medical staff. The other mentally disturbed inmates have checked in voluntarily and can leave when they feel capable of living in the real world.
These inmates react to McMurphy by beginning to act like men again, capable of such rebellious action as frolicking with a couple of prostitutes their new mentor sneaks into their ward along with drinks distilled to his own recipe. Even the Native American patient, Chief Bromden, is lured out of his schizophrenic deaf-mute pose to take part in the action.
Bromden, played by Tim Sampson whose father played the same part in the film version, makes an imposing narrator for the play in voice-overs, rather than just a supporting character as he was in the film. The importance of the Indian's interior monologues is greatly enhanced by Kevin Rigdon's imaginative lighting.
Other outstanding cast members are K. Todd Freeman, as the weak head doctor completely dominated by Ratched, John Watson Sr. as a strongarm hospital aide, and Ross Lehman, Eric Johner, Rick Snyder, Danton Stone, Misha Kuznetsov and Alan Wilder as inmates in various stages of lunacy. Mariann Mayberry and Sarah Charipar play the happy hookers with gusto.
Robert Brill's effective barred-windowed set is occasionally opened up into other suggestive settings by Sage Marie Carter's projections. Costume designer Laura Bauer's institutional uniforms look authentic and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen have contributed original musical settings for the action.
The sure-handed direction of Terry Kinney, another Steppenwolf co-founder, is a powerful factor in the success of this limited production, which will run through July 29.NEWLN: