If you don’t do recreational drugs but your friends do, you know the feeling. Everyone around you has smoked, snorted, dropped or injected something, and they’re all having a great time. They all think the conversation they’re having about a light bulb is fascinating. You, on the other hand, know they’re talking nonsense. They’re all on drugs. They’re boring.
You can replicate that feeling by seeing the new musical “Flying Over Sunset,” which opened Monday at LCT’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Or, to put it more precisely, you can see the second act of this 160-minute musical.
The first act intrigues, if it doesn’t fully engage. Perhaps too much is promised in the beginning: Three icons from the 1950s are introduced on stage, one by one, and they have almost nothing in common with each other — except for the fact that Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce and Aldous Huxley all do LSD, which back then was not illegal. James Lapine’s book introduces each at the moment he or she first takes the drug. Tony Yazbeck delivers an exceptionally stiff movie-star idol, who does his hallucinogenic experimentation under the supervision of a psychiatrist (Nehal Josh). Playing the political right-winger Luce, Carmen Cusack fascinates with her Southern charm and feminist confidence, Harry Hadden-Paton channels his Henry Higgins from a few seasons ago as the British-born author of “Brave New World.”
Luce and Huxley are more adventurous than Grant. They take the drug with the help of a guru, Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), who emerges as a narrator of sorts in Lapine’s book. Certainly, the show’s poster and its advertising doesn’t feature the guy. However, for those who know their substance-abuse history, Heard was a much-published writer who introduced Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, to LSD. They thought it might be a cure for alcoholism. And Heard’s close friendship with the religious-studies scholar Huston Smith led to Timothy Leary taking the drug and popularizing it into prohibition.
Little of Heard’s biography makes its way into “Flying Over Sunset.” Lapine envisions Heard as simply the drug dispenser to the stars. He’s also a homosexual, and a rather pathetic as portrayed by the mincing Robert Sella. Before we get to this musical’s odd fixation on the whole spectrum of LGBTQIA, let’s return to the three marquee names.
When Grant, Luce and Huxley take LSD, they burst into songs written by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Michael Korie. Throughout “Flying Over Sunset,” the Luce character gets the best tunes, many of them lovely ballads and waltzes that are expertly expanded into ensemble pieces. Or are these the best because Cusack is by far the most accomplished singer of the four principals?
Regardless of who’s singing, as soon as the vocals start, the massive set (by Beowulf Boritt) changes shape to reflect hallucinatory projections (by 59 Productions) that visualize what the characters are now experiencing in their head; colors intensify and the physical world drops away. Lapine also directs, and he handles the many elements like a master general. Fortunately, nobody gets swept into the orchestra pit by Boritt’s big, moving set.
When Heard, Luce and Huxley finally run into Grant for the first time, at the Brown Derby, the name-dropping abounds, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to George Cukor, with whom Heard — giggle! blush! simper! — might have had a quickie or two. Lapine gives this potentially fascinating quartet little else of consequence to talk about over lunch. No matter, in record time, plans are made to drop acid at Luce’s fabulous beach house in Malibu.
The three celebrity characters are not a perfect triangle. The emotional shocks that LSD exposes in Grant and Luce are far more profound than anything going on in Huxley’s past. Luce lost her mother (Michele Ragusa) and teenage daughter (Kanisha Marie Feliciano) in separate car accidents. Grant’s mother dressed the young boy in dresses to perform on stage; later, he thought her dead when, in fact, his father had had her committed to an asylum. Most memorable of these three LSD trips is Grant’s meeting his younger self, Archie Leach (Atticus Ware), who wears a flouncy white dress (costumes by Toni-Leslie James). Their tap-dancing pas de deux (choreography by Michelle Dorrance) begins cordially, quickly turns into a contest, and, in a tour de force from Yazbeck, leaves the older man exhausted. In the process, Ware delivers the most wonderfully gender-fluid performance from a juvenile actor since Jodie Foster stunned the movie world in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Huxley’s story is very different. There’s not much trauma to be exposed, but his advantage over Cary and Clare is that he wrote “Brave New World” — and social conservatives are attacking him for what is, in their opinion, the promotion of mind-altering drugs.
Before these characters set off for The Bu, they reprise the trippy title sung, now a stirring ensemble, and Act 2 looks more than promising.
This autumn, Kitt (with lyricist Brian Yorkey) also wrote the songs for the new musical “The Visitor,” which recently closed at the Public Theater. The composer deserved better reviews than he got there, although the show did expose a weakness. An angry 11 o’clock number in “The Visitor” fell flat. Kitt is imaginative with ballads and waltzes, but when the subject requires something more muscular, he struggles.
In the second act of “Flying Over Sunset,” when everybody drops acid together, does no one have a bad trip? Like, a really, really bad trip? Grant does meet little Archie again, this time at sea, and almost drowns. Musically, the scene begins innocuously with the jovial “Three Englishmen,” but when Grant flounders, Kitt leaves it to his orchestrator, Michael Starobin, to throw some dissonance into the ditty.
The comic “Rocket Ship” qualifies as a bad trip for lots of reasons. Here, Grant imagines himself a giant penis and Yazbeck wears something resembling a condom on the top of his head. The song exposes another Kitt weakness: He’s not great with patter songs or any kind of comic number. Even Korie’s rhymes can’t rescue this total misfire.
Only slightly less confusing and embarrassing is Grant’s tango with his next co-star in the movies, Sophia Loren (Emily Pynenburg). “I Like to Lead” is supposed to question the actor’s masculinity, but ends up saying more about the Italian bombshell, who is a figment of his imagination. Sophia does hint that Grant might be more complicated in bed. She momentarily ruffles him by mentioning ex-roommate Randolph Scott, then quickly moves on, as if to say, Let’s not explore that headline despite little Archie’s wearing a dress. Lapine provides one or two sentences more to describe the bisexuality of Huxley’s dead wife (Laura Shoop).
Near the end of “Flying Over Sunset,” Heard gets all bent out of shape because Luce calls him a “pansy.” He is indignant, minces more than usual, stomps his loafer, demands an apology.
Perhaps Lapine owes this character an apology. Earlier in the show, Heard and Luce ogle Grant while he’s sunbathing on the beach. Her sexual desire is handled with aplomb and a modicum of normalcy. Heard urinates so we can laugh at the character while he runs off, legs akimbo, covering his wet crotch with a towel, to change into someone else’s too large trousers, in which he is made to look even more ridiculously inferior to his matinee lust object, who, in real life, probably would have had little problem servicing him.
Heard doesn’t possess the celebrity of the other three. But he’s not just their poofy drug dealer from across Highway One. He is a man of real accomplishment, and yet, Lapine leaves it until the final scene for anyone to ask this historian, science writer, public lecturer, educator and philosopher who wrote over 35 books anything about his life. There might be a point in their lack of curiosity. Indeed, the point of “Flying Over Sunset” appears to be exposing the tragedy of White Celebrity Privilege. To their question about his boyhood, Heard answers that he was “lonely.” But we already knew that! He’s gay. It’s the 1950s. What else can he possibly be?
Lapine doesn’t have a great track record on this subject. He’s adapted Moss Hart’s memoir “One Act” to the stage, and it’s clear he never asked himself why a talented man of the theater would write an entire book about his youth and not once mention wanting to get laid.