The Heights Players’ “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” gives the often-sedate neighborhood theater a welcome dose of electroshock therapy.
The ample cast — there are usually at least six people on stage — all have a blast bringing to life Ken Kesey’s novel from the 1960s. In fact, the stage version —written in 1963 by Dale Wasserman — is ideal for the Heights Players, as it omits many of the counterculture and psychedelic aspects of the story in favor of a more familiar tale depicting a clash with authority.
Leading the charge is the merry prankster, McMurphy (Joe Malazita), who upends a mental institution by being sane and having a good time. Malazita brings an energy to the stage that is rare for the Heights Players — his enthusiasm won over the audience just as McMurphy’s lust for life wins over the motley crew of mentally ill patients locked up in the institution.
Malazita’s spirit rubbed off on the actors portraying the lovable lunatics who learn to live it up, as well. All of them have memorable quirks, but Michael Janove as Scanlon — a spasmodic nutcase with a penchant for one-liners — and Anthony Pizzuto as Harding — the smart but disturbed leader of the kooks — got some of the biggest laughs from the audience.
But all the humor does come at a price; the play is based on one of the more important novels of the 20th century, after all. Director Robert Waring does not mine the emotional depths of the patients’ illnesses — instead focusing on the comic aspects of McMurphy and his crazy cohorts. That makes for an entertaining show — but diminishes the drama of the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Jolijn Wendel).
Kesey’s Nurse Ratched is one of the most memorable villains ever — Wendel’s version of the mad medicine woman is more akin to a stern teacher trying to reign in a wild classroom than a psychopathic disciplinarian who will not hesitate to lobotomize anyone out of line.
Wendel was a bit stiff — even for Nurse Ratched — on opening night, and failed to convey her menacing character while still maintaining the haughty air that accompanies her absolute authority, though its worth noting she didn’t have that much dialogue to work with in the first place.
Still, the Heights Players deserve a lot of credit for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The troupe takes Kesey’s allegory of generational warfare in the 1960s and makes it much more palatable — and entertaining — for an audience hailing primarily from quaint Brooklyn Heights.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the Heights Players [26 Willow Pl. between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 237-2752], through Sept. 26. For info, visit www.heightsplayers.org.