Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Cuckoo's Nest has thrills, laughs, sobs

Cleveland Press February 17, 1973

"You gotta laugh," says the man, "especially when things ain't funny."

The speaker is the protagonist in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the play which opened at the Play House Euclid - 77th Theater last night,

As a bit of simple philosophy it is either something you instinctively understand or you feel no explanation is possible.

But it also describes the play, one of the funniest tragedies in recent years. The details are grim but they all come out hilarious.

THE SETTING is a ward in a mental hospital. The new arrival there is Randle P. McMurphy (Victor Caroli), transferred from a prison where he was considered incorrigible.

Did he get himself sent to the mental hospital? The suspicion is that he did, and if so he has only outwitted himself.

The man is an extrovert, brash, shrewd, friendly and openly defiant to all forms of authority.

THE AUTHORITY in this instance is Nurse Ratched (Jo Farwell) who is in charge of the ward.

As created by playwright Wasserman this is authority that must be defied -- it is tyrannical, smug, cruel.

Wasserman's play is about the conflict of the individual vs. society, man against the establishment, the loner against the system.

IF THE TWO SIDES in the struggle are presented in extremes, the conditions that are dramatized are both real and universal enough.

THE INDIVIDUAL who fights the system may damage others as well as destroy himself. A system that demands conformity tends to condition everyone in to non-thinking automatons, to destroy that which it cannot change.

Nurse Ratched's group therapy session are degrading experiences for the patients, experiences that only reinforce feelings of inadequacy.

McMurphy threatens to upset all that, to make the patients think and question. If he has to work within the rules, then he makes them work for himself. The nurse shows her real self by suspending the rules.

THERE IS THE ever-present threat of electro-shock therapy, as much a punishment as it is therapy.

If that doesn't work the nurse holds out the threat of a lobotomy, an operation that destroys the spirit. If you can't bend them, break them.

McMurphy starts out with a spirit of bravado. He's "gonna bug her" within a week. He wins a few skirmishes, but he can't win the war.

BUT WITH EACH thrust the play becomes funnier and more spirited. This is the underdog and you know he's going to lose and you cheer him on even more.

The climax is an orgy with a couple of smuggled in trollops. McMurphy, meanwhile, has caused a supposed catatonic patient to speak, has led a stuttering frightened boy to be courageous.

Even with a chance to escape, however, he will not shun the last battle with Nurse Ratched although he knows full well he will be destroyed.

THE PLAY IS a long one but it seems to be over more quickly than most shorter works. The script is filled with humor that ranges from the witty to slapstick to ribald, and all of it works and falls easily into place.

Larry Tarrant's direction is generally straightforward and brisk.

What works best however is a large company that displays with the feel and skill of an ensemble.

VICTOR CAROLI has the right bravura for the swaggering rascal, an admirable misfit. As the nurse, Jo Farwell, though looking rather young for the part, is properly despotic beneath a veneer of supposed kindness.

Excellent in their roles are John Buck Jr. as the leader of the inmates, Jonathan Farwell as the mute who isn't really mute, John Bergstrom as a hallucinated patient, Norm Berman as another inmate, Bob Moak as the doctor who is virtually henpecked by the head nurse, and Brenda Curtis and Mary Shelley as the trollops.

Most anti-establishment plays are so busy with their message that they forget to entertain. This one entertains all the way.