Does every man of the theatre yearn to be the bad boy? I can summon up several major productions that pivoted on the lead actor’s ability to project physical or sexual menace. Every one failed in the crunch. The profound desire to be liked, typical of most actors, works against being perceived as a bastard, however juicy such roles appear. By nature, the conundrum often appears when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is staged.
I wouldn’t have bet on Alex Martinez Wallace to break the cycle. Wallace is boyishly handsome and endlessly charming – he recently played Romeo, for pity’s sake. Such characteristics make him an unlikely choice for Randle McMurphy, the thieving, brawling statutory rapist as the center of Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s paean to life-force men. But Wallace, who reportedly has wanted to do Cuckoo’s Nest for many years, seems to know the secret to playing a bastard: Audiences are predisposed to like and sympathize with the protagonist. An actor can go deep into assholery without losing them.
And so he fearlessly does. Sporting muttonchops and a large mushy cap that seem to make cruder the shape of his face, Wallace barges into the ward of the mental hospital with a vulgarity and offensiveness, both vocal and physical, that prompts an audience to think, “‘Bout time you got here!” McMurphy is here because he manipulated the courts to commit him rather than send him to the penitentiary for a statutory rape charge. He doesn’t come off like a rough but inspiring leader. He comes off like a pushy thug. (It’s a nice actor’s trick that Wallace appears to grow younger and handsomer as his situation grows more dire.)
His early bastardry makes all of the black-comic tragedy that follows fall into inevitable place. Especially in McMurphy’s unstoppable-force confrontations with his unmovable-object bête noire, Nurse Ratched, to win, or keep, the souls of the beaten-down, troubled men on the ward.
Amy Alvarez has given interviews about her intent to play Nurse Ratched with nuance and a softer side. However, adding dimensions to this malevolent control freak doesn’t capture what Amy Alvarez accomplishes with the awful woman. There are roles where only being larger than life will do and, whatever her enlightened trepidations, the actress Alvarez knows it. All calm modulated voice, bright watchful gaze, and confident but womanly stance, Alvarez clarifies and unifies the Big Nurse’s nature. She offers up a thrilling, sustained long note of crystalline purity. (It’s a performance that must owe as much to Alvarez background as a singer as to her background as a social worker.) In doing so, she imbues the monster with, better than complexity, beauty. The audience understands why she is deferred to and why the men of the ward look up to her. And she gracefully stands in shimmering ordered opposition to Wallace’s loud rude chaos. Now I want to see Alvarez do Greek tragedy.
Michael Aaron Santos plays the third major role: the electroshocked, constantly sweeping Chief Bromden. The Big Chief is the perfect vehicle for the melancholy allure of Santos’ voice and demeanor. As the fey, pussy-whipped Harding, A.J. Allegra kills his big monologue and achieves a transformative triumph to rival Wallace’s. He appears thicker, older, and homelier. This would be the time to nod in appreciation of the makeup design of Leslie Claverie, who also works miracles with Natalie Boyd as a whoop-de-doo good-time girl and Sam Dudley as a haunting lobotomy patient. (Between this and his performance in Death of a Salesman, I’d nominate Dudley as the least typecast young actor in town.)
Mike Harkins as Cheswick doesn’t get a Big Moment, and doesn’t need one. There’s no one better at sliding a subtle performance in and around the attention grabbers surrounding him. Halfway through the work, the theatre-goer realizes that they understand his character better than any other onstage.
Kyle Daigrepont as Dr Spivey is as subtle and detailed as Harkins. The pair creates the verisimilitude feel for real-world hospital life on offer. Michael P Sullivan delivers many of the play’s funniest moments by not straining for them. Kali Russell makes Candy Starr much more dimensional than her silly name requires. James Bartelle as an aide, working with nothing, creates another instantly recognizable man using only his talent. I can pay no higher compliment to Levi Hood’s vulnerable, stuttering mama’s boy Billy Bibbit than to say that one understands why McMurphy risks his freedom for him, even considering him nearly worth it. Regarding the equally adept Richard Alexander Pomes and Eric Charleston (as mean aides), Kaitlyn McQuin Heckel (as an innocent nurse), and Keith Claverie (as an explosive patient), I simply run low on space and superlatives.
Prior to watching this adaptation I’d sketched remarks about how Wasserman’s play hadn’t held up well with the passage of time. I planned to reference Steppenwolf revival and the critical complaints about the script’s manipulations, melodrama, sentimentality and, especially, its adolescent misogyny. I hope I can use those remarks somewhere else, because it turns out that another 15 years has done the play a world of good. As the ‘60s recede in memory from living history into misty myth so has Cuckoo’s Nest retreated from anti-authoritarian cautionary tale to outright fable.
However, this fable traffics in still-potent archetypes. This otherworldly quality is evocatively reinforced by Bill Walker’s scenic design: the common room of the asylum is an eerie blue-white tribute to Kubrick’s 2001 and other old-fashionedly sterile “visions of the future.” Except for its scuffed linoleum floor, the room could be floating in space. Dan Zimmer’s lighting, Mike Harkins’ sound, and especially Christopher Arthur’s costumes – only in a design where the outfits are in unobtrusive harmony with the set could the brown (brown!) of McMurphy’s clothes upon admission be startling – follow Walker’s lead flawlessly. Everything is meaningful, nothing is quite real.
Director Mark Routhier must be credited for delivering a product that transcends the flaws with the script and factual inaccuracies. Time and again, Routhier makes choices that gentle the audience past the sticking points – “We know, we know. Ratched would be fired by now. McMurphy would just up and leave. But look here! This makes it okay, doesn’t it?” – until the gathering force of the play’s rising stakes sweep us to the powerful end. This is direction not just deft, but kind, like a well-managed treatment facility.
There was one flaw. The mad rush of events at the play’s climax strained credulity even in a fable. Perhaps, the problem was timing. I saw the show in its first Sunday matinee, a performance historically noted for the sheer exhaustion of actors after a mighty long week.
Many people, friends included, have challenged the propriety of my work reviewing the very same New Orleans theatre community of which I am a member. The critique is especially sharp when I’m “too close” to a show’s creators. But one can appraise the work of friends fairly, if maybe not entirely objectively. (If I hate what my friends have done, I’m in a jam.) The real difficulty lies in judging the work of artists of whom I’m jealous, not fond. The NOLA Project leads this list: I’ve skipped more of its work than I’ve seen.
But if this show is typical of what they can do, they’ve earned their pre-eminence fair ‘n’ square. More than simply the most artistically complete production I’ve seen in, well, forever – as if that’s not recommendation enough – The NOLA Project’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an act of cultural reclamation. Essential, vanishingly rare.