Flying Over Sunset (Boulevard)

Flying Over Sunset dramatizes Cary Grant, Aldous Huxley, Clare Boothe Luce, and historian/science writer/philosopher Gerald Heard dropping acid together at her Malibu, California beach home in the 1950s. While it’s documented all took the drug repeatedly and that they knew one another, the celebrities’ joint experience is fictional. Who but James Lapine, the man who conceived Sunday in the Park with George, would try to catch that illusory lightning in a bottle?

Background

Lysergic acid diethylamind/LSD/Acid was accidentally discovered in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in search of a cure for respiratory problems. Five years later while concocting it again, he perceived “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” A small amount of LSD25 had been absorbed through his fingers. Hoffman began experimenting with what we came to know as “trips” which he found psychologically valuable.

Thinking the drug might have psychiatric benefits, Hoffman’s lab, Sandoz, began to offer it to researchers and therapists who tested it on alcoholism, PTSD, and other mental conditions. Between 1950-1965, during an otherwise uptight, stability-oriented cultural period, roughly 40,000 people would be treated with the drug while it was accessible. (A resurgence of these trials is occurring now.)

In the 1960s, the public was made aware of the drug through Harvard-based Robin Hood, Timothy Leary who would found a psychedelic religion that coined the phrase “tune in, turn on, drop out” and his associate Richard Alpert, who as Baba Ram Dass, would write the spiritual Be Here Now. People like author and proselytizer Ken Kesey and disseminator Owsley Stanley took the ball and ran. LSD was not declared illegal until 1968.

The Play

Harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley)

Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his beloved, cancer-riddled wife Maria (Laura Shoop – lovely presence, beautiful voice) romantically dance. Why do we open with a couple around whom the story does not revolve? They’re circled by the company taking synchronized, sound-enhanced steps. (This weird action repeats throughout the play without even metaphoric explanation.) Huxley, Maria, and their friend Gerald Heard (Robert Sella) are then seen at Rexall Drugs in Los Angeles. Huxley has just dropped his first acid. He and his wife had already tried mescaline.

Heard, himself experienced, is Huxley’s benevolent “trip-sitter” as it was called then, or “guide” as it was referred to in the 60s. (Someone who made sure a trip was not going amiss.) Rexall sold everything from toys to clothes in addition to drugs and beauty supplies. For the three, it was a destination meant to stimulate. We watch as the drug kicks in and Huxley hallucinates Biblical figures from an art book he’s perusing, beginning with tableaux vivants.  Childlike delight is omnipresent.

The author of Brave New World and later, The Doors of Perception, was among the first West Coast denizens to drop acid. “While one is under the drug, one has penetrating insights into the people around one and also one’s own life…the experience can be very liberating and widening…It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is.” (Aldous Huxley interviewed for The Paris Review 1960.)

It’s a credit to the production that hallucinated characters enter and exit fluidly without Hollywood ghost effects and that little is made of others in the room not seeing them. (Act Two, however, finds spirits unnecessarily present where they become distractions.) Accompanying projections, marvelous and apt, ooze onto set pieces throughout, eschewing ersatz Peter Max psychedelic poster art for enlarged manifestation of each person’s imagination.

Tony Yazbeck (Grant)

Seriously considering retirement, unsettled in his persona, life and marriage, Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck) agrees to try LSD in the office of Mortimer Hartman. partner in a Beverly Hills LSD clinic, and his wife, Betsy Drake’s psychiatrist. (Here the therapist’s name is Dr. Harris – played by Nehal Joshi.) The couple had already explored transcendental meditation, yoga and Shamanic ingesting of peyote together. (All true. He was 55 and would take 100 trips over four years. This is illuminated in the excellent documentary Becoming Cary Grant.) We see him at the same time impatient and dismissive.

Upon submitting, Grant hallucinates a little girl with whom he executes a fabulous (if too long) music hall tap number. (Bravo to his partner, 13 year-old Atticus Ware and to terrific choreographer Michelle Dorrance.)  She’s a part of what we discover to have been Archie Leach’s (his given name) traumatic background which fostered deep seated insecurity. Grant is depicted as being wary of drug taking at this stage, especially outside the secure environment of a doctor’s office.

Carmen Cusack (Luce), Robert Sella (Heard)

The third partaker is, by request, administered LSD in her luxurious backyard by her friend, Gerald Heard. Clare Booth Luce (Carmen Cusack) was a spokeswoman for American Conservatism, congresswoman, playwright, and ambassador. She and her husband, mogul Henry Luce, were introduced to the drug by a medical researcher. Having served successfully as Ambassador to Italy, Clare Luce  is up for ambassadorship to Brazil. Her marriage is described as sexless and loveless. She’s seeking a next step. South America? Back to screenwriting? The distaff portion of the group conjures two dead relatives, about whose passing she has regrets. It’s she who first sings the exhilarating “Flying Over Sunset.”

Heard introduces Huxley and Luce at a lunch. Luce acknowledges their like psychological pursuits and invites everyone to Malibu for a collective trip. By now, Huxley’s wife has passed. Readjustment is difficult. Grant is dealing with major career and again, marital decisions. Luce is facing an entirely new chapter in her life. All are vulnerable. End of Act I.

Act II takes place at the beach where the four (including Gerald) experience their own trips as well as sharing. Each exposes his/her past more fully and grapples with a current issue. There are moments of high anxiety, fear, sadness, and offense – brought to bay by others. Librettist James Lapine, having experience with acid himself, is smart enough not to make things pat. No one emerges completely renewed. Doors are opened, in compressed time. This section is burdened by too much exposition/information.

Robert Sella (Heard), Harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley), Carmen Cusack (Luce), Tony Yazbeck (Grant)

It also has its rewards: Gerald, who is gay, reveals feelings for Grant in subtle, poignant fashion. Grant admits his for Sophia Loren (graceful Emily Pynenburg). General thought is that the actor was at least bisexual. Luce finds heaven to be an interesting place. Huxley adds scientific explanations, finding them compatible with belief in God. This is a thinking person’s script.

One spectacular scene takes place when the men go swimming with effects that combine in immensely expressive stagecraft. Set (Beowulf Boritt), projection (59 Projections), lighting (Bradley King), sound (Dan Moses Schreier who also facilitates pristine singing). Elsewhere, Boritt’s minimal furniture and curved, sliding walls work symbiotically with the other creatives.

The Company

Grant promoted the use of LSD with no apparent career consequences. In 1959, he was interviewed in Look Magazine stating “At last, I am close to happiness.” A year later, Good Housekeeping, wrote that LSD was one of the secrets of the actor’s “second youth.” Timothy Leary read the article and began a correspondence with Grant whose crusade, the clinical psychologist wrote, provoked his own experimentation with psychedelics. Luce left LSD diaries to The Library of Congress. Huxley authored – among other things – The Doors of Perception and arranged to take the drug on his deathbed.

Harry Hadden-Paton, miscast in My Fair Lady, makes an excellent Aldous Huxley, whom he resembles. Glee, scientific intellectualism, love and despair play across his face. He giggles well. Carmen Cusack has never sounded more glorious. The actress is patrician, utilizing a slight finishing school drawl. She manifests confidence, loneliness and regret. Tony Yazbeck’s phenomenal dancing is given full berth. His singing is splendid. Unfortunately, in an assumed effort to sound like Grant, he’s developed an unnatural accent making every word seem a bit false. Acting is awkward, though his Flying Penis Rocket Ship number’s a winner. Robert Sella (Heard) is so sympathetic, even his chanting lands respectfully. The character’s hidden fragility is beautifully brought to fore.

Tom Kitt’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics service well and are forgotten but for the title song. James Lapine’s libretto is, as one would expect, credible, intriguing, and enlightening. There’s just too much of it. At two hours forty (with intermission), the musical is easily half an hour too long.

An intriguing and ambitious show that needs pruning.

Also featuring Michele Ragusa and Kanisha Marie Feliciano

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Harry Hadden-Patton, Carmen Cusack

Flying Over Sunset
Book-James Lapine
Music-Tom Kitt
Lyrics-Michael Korie
Directed by James Lapine
Music Direction-Kimberly Grigsby
The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

About Alix Cohen (1286 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.