`One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: Passion Play

Peter Nichols’ "Passion Play" is having a fine

yet somewhat dispassionate revival Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane

Theater. When it originally opened on Broadway 18 years ago under

the title "Passion" (lest anyone might think they were getting

Jesus on a cross), its reception, even with Frank Langella in the

lead, was considerably cooler than the one it received at its 1981

London premiere. While "Passion Play" was brought back to

great acclaim to London’s West End last season, courtesy of the Donmar

Warehouse, the New York staging by Elinor Renfield is new and

American-made.

I’m not sure that Renfield, who has been teaching at Princeton since

1987, and more recently at the New School University, has breathed

any new life into one of the more provocative plays of the last

century,

but she doesn’t compromise its more disturbing notions and qualities.

What is missing is a sense of sexual tension and urgency that might

propel this play better for American audiences, together with a cast

that might better inspire the same.

In that "Passion Play" still gives one the feeling of

attending

a high tea affair, wherein tragic and religious overtones (courtesy

of occasional blasts of the St. Matthew Passion) are filtered through

furtive glances and subtle innuendoes, there is little (as I’m sure

the author intended) expressed to suggest the sensual and carnal

experience

the title implies. Instead, the author of "Joe Egg" and

"The

National Health," tantalizes us with his clever and insinuating

writing in Act I which promises a lot more than Act II in fact

delivers.

Nevertheless, the play’s second half spirals deliberately toward its

inevitable conclusion: that infidelity, more often than not, damages

a marriage. Maybe it is a simplistic morality tale, but the simplicity

and directness of the telling is the play’s greatest asset.

The major premise is whether man’s unquenchable desire for sex is

at odds with his monogamously geared society. The play’s dizzyingly

contrived structure places simultaneously on stage both the husband

James (Simon Jones) and wife Eleanor (Maureen Anderman) with their

respective inner selves Jim (John Curliss) and Nell (Leslie Lyles).

These inner selves are amusingly intrusive in varying degrees as

conscience,

alter ego, and more simply playing the part of an interior devil’s

advocate. The result sounds like a miniature chamber oratorio. Where

the play works best is in the way James and Eleanor are seen in

conflict

with what they say and what they think. (Shades of Eugene O’Neill’s

"Strange Interlude.") This builds expectedly toward more pain

than pleasure as their relationship disintegrates through encounters

both marital and extramarital.

There is a pulse that beats with originality throughout the work.

However, the triangular affair between a middle-aged man and Agnes

(Lucy Martin), a home-wrecking tart, becomes a contest in which

James’s

wife, Eleanor, considers suicide and even the possibilities of a

"sandwich"

situation. The characters are guided through deceits, recriminations,

remorse, and resignation, by Renfield’s carefully orchestrated, if

somewhat indulgent, pacing. At their best, they can be praised for

dissecting complex characters with poignancy and even playfulness.

Anderman, who more than held her own last season against Eileen

Heckart

in "The Waverly Gallery," wrings a respectable amount of

frustration

out of Eleanor’s distress. At first deeply hurt and then fearful that

her once-secure marriage is being wrecked by infidelity, Eleanor is

contrasted with a more neurotic Nell, as played by Lyles with mannered

eccentricities. Jones and Curliss are an amusing pair of Tweedledum

and Tweedledee, victims of simple lust. Jones, who can always be

counted

on to bring a British countenance to any play, presents James as a

mere victim of man’s inability to remain faithful. Apparently James,

who is bent on restoring both his marriage and the damaged paintings

he repairs for a living, is out to make a case that his philandering

is acceptable male behavior.

As for his other self, Jim, Curliss appropriates a more cynical and

emotional perspective of love, life, and his ever-present conflict

with religion and its dogmas. Martin, as the over-the-hill Lolita,

is as unsubtle as she is coquettish, as she parades her unrestrained

sexuality with brazen, if not convincing, assuredness. Natachia Roy

has a go being bitter as Kate, the busybody best friend, whose ex

was one of Agnes’s conquests, and who uncovers the triangle. Whatever

you call "Passion," it is a play that will still invite more

thought than the prospects of promiscuity. Three stars: You won’t feel

cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Passion Play, Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane, New

York, 212-307-4100. $25 & $55.

Top Of Page
`One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

When the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company invades Broadway

(as they have in recent seasons with astonishing productions of

"The

Grapes of Wrath" and "Buried Child"), you can always

expect

them to set in motion a veritable twister of dramatic turbulence.

Although the highest level of bravado acting is a given with this

company, their collective input on `One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

does not offer enough to keep Dale Wasserman’s play from appearing

dated and surprisingly dull. Despite a searing energized performance

by Gary Sinise as McMurphy, Terry Kinney’s forceful direction hasn’t

done enough to salvage this problematic, indeed neurotic play set

in a mental institution.

In trying to give it cohesive shape, Kinney does everything but whip

this play into submission. Yet even with the help of a fine 21-member

cast, only a modicum of credibility emerges. Indeed Kinney must deal

with the author’s confusing mixture of melodramatic inanity with the

more realistically deployed contrivances that help to make this

comedy/drama

something of a special case. It takes a lot of patience to become

both empathetic and more than a little anxious for this aggressively

optimistic inmate who, after being convicted of statutory rape, allows

himself to be confined rather than submit to time on a work farm.

Sinise plunges into the role of Randle P. McMurphy (originated on

Broadway by Kirk Douglas and recreated on the screen by Jack

Nicholson)

with a boldly manufactured machismo, as well as a measure of naivete.

If Sinise’s increasingly frenetic, but always cunning, attempts to

incite a revolt among the inmates add the necessary excitement to

the asylum antics, they still don’t make Wasserman’s melodrama easy

to swallow.

As McMurphy’s nemesis Nurse Ratched, Amy Morton has given the soft

pedal to this she-demon’s barely suppressed neurosis. Morton

administers

to her assigned patients with the prerequisite touch of motherly hate,

but she is never chilling enough by half. Other performances, like

Eric Johner’s stuttering, mother-fixated Billy; Danton Stone’s

childlike

Martini; K. Todd Freeman’s unconscionably spineless Dr. Spivey; Tim

Sampson’s mostly speechless hulk of an Indian Chief; and Mariann

Mayberry

and Sarah Charipar, as a couple of ward-crashing floozies come close,

but never exceed the boundaries of artful histrionics.

It was Ross Lehman, as the emotional wreck Dale, who impressed me

most with his sensitive projection of insecurity. He provokes genuine

laughter with such erudite observations as, "This place is a

madhouse."

The mirth may be as rampant as the madness and the terror in Kinney’s

staging, but after two-and-a-half hours of these

"psycho-ceramics,"

set in the confines of Robert Brill’s cold, calculated, hallucinatory

setting, you may find yourself asking for a straitjacket of your own.

Two stars: Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Royale Theater, 242 West

45 Street, New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

$30 to $75.


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