Hornet’s Nest

It is hard to assess how much of it is overexposure, but watching this particular nest overflown for the fourth time, I felt rather like the Chinese under U.S. aerial surveillance. I speak of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Randle P. McMurphy, Ken Kesey’s Huck Finn- in-the-booby-hatch hero, coming at us via Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation, is a product all too mired in its period.

That period, leading up to the events of 1968, spawned the genre of the real or fake madman rebelling against a madhouse world in which the allegedly sane are crazier than the so-called crazies; e.g., Cuckoo’s Nest, King of Hearts, and, substituting the Army for the asylum, Catch-22. At root the child’s rebellion against Mother, Kesey’s one successful 1962 fiction was in essence a novelized graffito.

Wasserman’s 1963 Broadway version, starring Kirk Douglas as a superb McMurphy, flopped. The San Francisco-engendered Off Broadway version of 1971, with its anti-Vietnam subtext, clicked with William Devane morphing into McMurphy. But it was Milos Forman’s 1975 movie that immortalized this faux-bananas Bunyan in the person of Jack Nicholson, who cannily blended menace with mischief. The enemy is Nurse Ratched, the eternal emasculating feminine, against whom the boy hero wages a war of liberation.

Gary Sinise, the incumbent McMurphy, drawl and swagger well in place, has more of a smirk than a laugh, more bonhomie than subversion, and Sinise’s bug-eyed baby face is less of an asset in this role than in others. As Nurse Ratched, Amy Morton, a tall, thin actress, gives an understated, one-dimensional performance that goes only so far – if that.

The supporting roles are handled well enough but without the bravura that William Daniels, Gene Wilder, and Brad Dourif displayed in former Nests. As representatives of Kesey’s other trite topos, the whore with the heart of gold, Mariann Mayberry and Sarah Charipar do nicely; the only miscalculated performance is that of K. Todd Freeman, as an utterly wimpy Dr. Spivey. For the mighty Chief Bromden, it is good to have Tim Sampson, son of the movie-version Indian, proving that son-to-father successions work better outside politics.

As director, Terry Kinney is less apt than as actor, but it may be that Robert Brill’s imposing but inflexible set is partly to blame. Kevin Rigdon’s lighting for Bromden’s interior monologues may be a trifle showy but provides much-needed variety. This Cuckoo’s Nest is chiefly recommendable to those coming to it absolutely fresh, if any such exist.

My previous encounters with the playwright Jose Rivera, Marisol and Cloud Tectonics, were less than happy, and the first twenty-or-so minutes of References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot tended to bear out my doubts. The very title, for one thing, elicited a no-way-José reaction; for another, the cavortings of a violin-playing Moon, and the sexual games of a fat Cat and lean Coyote inspired meager enthusiasm.

We were in the yard of a near-hovel in the California desert by an Army town, where Gabriela was awaiting the return from the Gulf War of her soldier husband, Benito. But once the seemingly fragile but tough and gun-toting Gabi – after dancing with the concupiscent Moon, intimidating the Coyote, and sparring with the Cat – took over with her Army wife’s frustrations and laments, and especially after the horny Benito returned to claim his marital rights with a certain lack of tact, things began to look up and up.

The writing fluctuates between faintly surreal poetry and wryly pointed prose, cocky fantasy and bittersweet earthiness. Rivera manages the latter adroitly, but even the former is not without its moments. As the lunar and animal shenanigans yield to human sexual and spiritual needs at loggerheads with material and military requirements, the play turns into a genuine comedy-drama that rises above the specific into the ecumenical.

Particularly praiseworthy is the evenhandedness with which Rivera articulates the husband’s and the wife’s dilemmas, and his ability to anchor Benito and Gabriela in both their Hispanic roots and their ultimate universality. Their language is credibly down-to-earth, but with flights of a more literary wit and lyricism that, after the initial stages, avoid striking false notes.

Too bad that the principals in this production, otherwise skillfully directed by Jo Bonney, are unevenly matched. As Benito, John Ortiz is memorable, good from his unflattering razor Army haircut to his all-flattening Army boots. As a man who loves his country except for the people in it, and who does not demur at ordering the destruction of an entire village of unsubmitting “towelheads,” Ortiz expertly balances strategic brutality with finer feelings. What he likes about the Army is the lifelong pension after the twenty-year stint, on which, now in his eleventh year, he keeps his inner gaze fixed.

He cannot understand why Gabi can’t wait out nine more years, after which their marriage will cease to be a continual coitus interruptus. She, however, is fed up to the point of receiving her returning mate with an empty fridge and unspread thighs. She assumes the upper hand – or foot, symbolized by her tromping around in Benito’s relievedly shed boots – and gives hubby an ultimatum: Either the uniform or the wife must go. But in these lively verbal and sexual jockeyings, Rosie Perez does not hold her own. She comes across as a Shirley Temple with knockers, her line delivery consistently defying natural rhythms and pauses, her insubstantial voice fading as if evaporating from the desert sun. She is undeniably cute, but what suffices in the movies falls short on the stage. Her specialty appears to be petulance, from which she seldom ventures forth.

Among the supporting players, the most interesting is Carlo Alban, as a 14-year-old neighbor with a lech for Gabriela, whom he pursues with boyish maladroitness. The actor does this with a charm rather lacking in Cat, Coyote, and Moon. The Dalí reference, completely adventitious, will leave you cold, but most of the play will not.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
At the Royale Theater.
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot
At the Public Theater.

Hornet’s Nest