Ken Kesey's 1962 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a young man's sexual phantasmagoria. Curvy young women with long silky hair and high-heeled shoes sneak into a locked-tight asylum under shadow of night. A young and reckless hero invites them in and beats back evil armed with nothing more than a pack of Marlboro reds and a stick of Juicy Fruit. The enemy is the stone-hearted nurse with steel breasts and blood-colored lips. She'll cut off your balls if you let her -- just look what she's done to every other lunatic on the psych ward she watches over.
Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage adaptation of Kesey's novel, now running at the Alley Theatre, stays true to the book, tracing the journey of rebel Randall P. McMurphy (James Black) as he descends deeper and deeper into the bowels of a state mental hospital. There, McMurphy -- who's really not crazy, just trying to con his way out of hard labor at the work farm -- takes on the system as it comes to him in the clean, cruel shape of Nurse Ratched (Annalee Jefferies).
But before McMurphy can do battle with Ratched, he's got to win over a ward full of crazies. They're a familiar lot: The infantilized Billy Bibbit (Ty Mayberry) stutters his story about a hen-pecking mother. Professor Dale Harding (Todd Waite) has only one problem, something to do with his "big-knockered" wife, whom he married to help him "counteract certain tendencies." Cheswick (James Belcher) is a nasty old man who shuffles about the ward leering at young nurse Flinn (Jennifer Cherry). Martini (John Tyson) sees things that aren't there. And -- surprise, surprise -- the charming, friendly-faced Scanlon (David Rainey) turns out to be the rapist of the bunch. Michael Nichols plays the narrator, Bromden, a big crazy Indian whose white mother made his "Papa," the chief, leave the reservation to marry her.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through March 23. 713-228-8421. $30-$50.
With the exception of the staff, this is a ward without women. Good thing, too, since they seem to be the root of evil in this white-tiled den of lunacy. No bad boy wants to mind his mama, and this is without a doubt a play about men acting out a whole notebook of schoolyard fantasies. They play basketball in the ward, sneak booze in when nobody's looking and thumb their noses at the glowering Ratched. In this schoolyard where women are the enemy, boys just want to have fun.
As childish and misogynistic as the story is, it's hard to resist director Gregory Boyd's imaginative production. Designer Vincent Mountain's set is a marvel of rusting white tile, fold-up card tables and snaking steel vents; above it all is a glass booth filled with big-brother computers and Nurse Ratched's evil eye.
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Boyd's cast is a blaze of testosterone. Heading the wild bunch is Black, with his usual swaggering gait. Though he is unbelievable as even a mislabeled psychopath, his fun-loving, good-hearted brawler who stands up for every unloved soul on the ward is charming to watch. The only thing missing from Black's performance is an undercurrent of sociopathic malice that would make real the moment where McMurphy tries to strangle the über-nurse.
The chorus of wiseguys who fall under McMurphy's charms are bumbleheads who come off as neither dangerous nor particularly crazy. But this on-fire cast works wonders with the material and is often hysterically funny as it goes about breaking the rules. Mayberry's Billy Bibbit is the most moving of the lot; his stutter sounds painfully real, and his long thin body becomes a bundle of tics and nervous shudders when anything hits too close to home. In spite of the bad politics written into the role, Rainey's rapist is a riot. The terrific ensemble riffs off each other's jokes and gestures with dead-on timing.
Jefferies does the best anyone could with the thankless role of Ratched. Boyd has underscored the character's heartlessness, making her almost inhuman. Her breasts shoot out of her white uniform like tiny missiles. She watches the men with glass-eyed distance. When the lights go creepy, her movements become mechanized as if she were just another machine in a soulless system.
As good as his cast is, however, the highlight of this production is Boyd himself, who's found a beating heart somewhere in the middle of this dated and wrongheaded script. His direction is inspired, especially in the late-night party scene where he creates a cinematographic acid trip complete with strobe lights, dancing girls, a light-up monkey mask and a nurse made out of toilet paper. This romp of images is stunning for both its scope and its sheer audacity. No one in Houston knows how to be as rebellious, take as many liberties and have as much fetishistic fun on stage as Gregory Boyd. It's no wonder he picked Kesey's wild, adolescent tale for his season.