One of the most powerful aspects of live theater is its ability to make us sit through abnormal human behavior. When the recipe is right, the discomfort we feel while experiencing people behaving strangely or even psychotically onstage (like Shakespeare's King Lear, for instance) can have a catalyzing effect. By being forced to confront the most troubling aspects of the human condition in an up-close-and-personal way, we exit the theater feeling differently from how we felt when we entered.
With this in mind, you would expect One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to play particularly well at the snug 100-seat SF Playhouse just off Union Square. Codirector Bill English is one of the most creative set designers around; he understands the relationship between confined space and playmaking. In recent years, I have seen him transform the Playhouse's graham-cracker–sized performance area into a modish New York penthouse (The Scene), a spare 17th-century New England cottage (The Crucible), and a full-fledged basketball court with hoops (Three Seconds in the Key). SF Playhouse has developed a dedicated following since it was founded in 2003 largely because of its combination of talented casts, mostly tried-and-true modern works, and English's strong visual eye.
Although there is much to recommend this production of Cuckoo's Nest, it ultimately fails to create the effect of making us feel completely discomfited by the action taking place at such close range.
The source material is certainly powerful. Written by Dale Wasserman in 1963, based on Ken Kesey's 1962 novel of the same title (which in turn became a multiple-Oscar–winning movie in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson), the drama tells the story of the debilitating effects of an insidiously oppressive medical system on a group of male inmates at an Oregon psychiatric hospital. Enclosed within the confines of SF Playhouse's taut space, artfully decked out by English (who also directs) to look like a clinical, 1960s mental institution with impassive swing doors, a glass-enclosed observation booth, and dull-white and snot-green institutional paint, Kesey's motley cast of kooks ought to grab us and never let go.
Unfortunately, this isn't the case. There are 14 actors in this production — a huge number for such a small stage. The impact of all those inmates of varying degrees of insanity wedged into such tight quarters should be overwhelming. Yet the energy of the production frequently fizzles. The main problem may be English's direction. The pacing and rhythm feel one-dimensional and lackluster, while the actors seem to be carrying out a set of blocking instructions rather undertaking their actions from a deep-seated organic place within themselves. The climax feels half-hearted and rushed. As a result, it's hard to engage with the plight of the inmates.
This is a shame, as SF Playhouse has assembled a great cast. Michael Torres' Chief Bromden, an Indian tribesman who speaks only when narrating the action and otherwise remains catatonic, fills the space like a sad and silent mountain. As the painfully shy and awkward young inmate Billy Bibbit, Patrick Alparone tugs at our heartstrings without ever overdoing his speech impediment or hunched physique. Hansford Prince's McMurphy is all showy bluster, yet we can sense his frightened inner child squirming underneath the confident façade. And as Nurse Ratched, Susi Damilano offsets her character's taskmasterly persona, epitomized by a stiff brown Stepford Wives wig, with moments of vulnerability. When McMurphy pushes her buttons, rather than remaining stern (as Louise Fletcher does in the movie), a slight softness plays about the edges of Damilano's otherwise determined face. We feel she might for a moment give in to him — a tantalizing proposition, which makes the character seem more complex and human.
Despite the cast's sensitive approach to putting larger-than-life abnormal behavior on a small stage, our impulse to get up and leave isn't so much to do with feeling uncomfortable (a good thing) but slightly bored (not a good thing at all). Far from feeling riveted by the immediacy of the grueling narrative and desperate characters, this Cuckoo comes across as being several twigs short of a nest.