Friday, April 14, 2006

Slater takes flight

Christian Slater's latest flight of acting fancy isn’t cinematic, but his second crack at a stage version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the London West End’s Garrick Theatre.

The play, like the film and book before it, centers on Randal P. McMurphy, a jailbird that may or may not be crazy, who is sent to a mental institution to serve the rest of his term. Upon arrival he immediately butts heads with the institution's controlling head nurse, Nurse Ratched and in the process snaps the ward patients out of their despondency.

Slater first played the role of Randle P. McMurphy on stage in 2004 and while this new production is flawed, Slater is commanding in the role Jack Nicholson made famous in Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film.

It is fitting that Slater would take on one of Nicholson’s most famous role as he’s often been mocked as a poor-man’s Nicholson. But Slater is no joke, at least not in the role, and indeed proves himself perfect a fit for it. He exhibits an energy that alternates between explosive and implosive. Even in quieter moments you sense a torrid of emotions bubbling under the surface.

Slater’s performance harkens back to his dynamic work in “Heathers.” He’s charming, a bit dangerous and even sympathetic. It would be easy to play a character like McMurphy with sheer over-the-top bravado and focus only on his antics to stir up the restrictive system in which he has been placed, but Slater keeps the character multi-dimensional.

When McMurphy finds out his fellow patients are there voluntarily, while he is a committed man that could be stuck there for years, Slater plays the scene just right, keeping the tone just left of overly dramatic.

The supporting cast of "crazy" is also quite strong, especially Paul Ready as the stuttering Billy Bibbitt and Owen O’Neil as the repressed homosexual Dale Harding. Many of the other patients are just flat archetypes present for comic relief, which in the case of Ian Coppinger as the schizophrenic Martini, provide laughs, but little more.

Ready and O’Neil raise their roles beyond mere nervous ticks and instill their characters with some genuineness. Their characters fall prey most frequently to the abuses of Nurse Ratched’s “therapy” and in these scenes they win the audience’s sympathies.

The two biggest problems of the production are the portrayals of Nurse Ratched and the Chief, one of the ward’s patients.

Alex Kingston of TV’s “ER” plays Ratched too over-the-top, but it would seem the fault of this should fall largely on writer Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel and directors Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey.

Ratched is made too malicious and malevolent. Having not read the book I can’t say how she was in it, but at least in the film the evil she represented was unintentional. She became an instrument of cruelity, but she wasn’t necessarily aware of it.

Ratched genuinely thinks she is doing good, it is her methods, passive aggression and her need to keep people under her control that make her a villain. In this version Ratched comes off as taking pleasure in torturing her patients with a mischievous, almost sinister grin on her face most of the play.

Kingston does what she is asked well, but it feels off. Louise Fletcher's performance in the film was far more subtle and all the more effective.

As for the Chief, the character almost single handedly kills the production and for some he still may. The Chief is a Native American who is faking being deaf and dumb and the play uses a device of a lone spotlight coming on him as he delivers heavy-handed monologues between scenes.

The device is extremely ill advised and takes the audience out of the play, which for the most part plays on a realistic level. It throws the pace of the show off and adds only uncomfortable confusion and eye-rolling pretension.

Brendan Dempsey’s portrayal of the Chief doesn’t help matters. He feeds off of tired Native American stereotypes and speaks in a vaguely offensive slow, monotone manner.

Furthermore, these speeches ruin the dramatic punch of when McMurphy discovers the Chief can hear and talk. The audience already knows this. It is a cheat.

The play cheats the audience in other places as well. By revealing the possible punishments awaiting McMurphy: electro-shock therapy and lobotomy, the play robs itself of dramtic tension. When these both inevitably occur it is a forgone conclusion and loses its emotional weight. The film on the other hand was wise to keep these plot options a secret until the moment they occurred.

Still Slater and his support are so strong that the shortcomings are outweighed. There’s something magical about watching an actor live and in complete control of their charm, charisma and talent. That is something all too rare and because this “Cuckoo Nest” has Slater’s potent performance it can be called a success.

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