Answer: They all took the new, experimental, not-yet-illegal drug LSD to help them with problems of a psychiatric nature.
For movie star Cary Grant (1904–86), he had yet to come to terms with a hideous childhood in Bristol, with a father who locked up the boy’s mother in an asylum, never to be seen again (and she was, admittedly, mad), then deserting his brood. Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was the bestselling author of “Brave New World” and a late-in-life mystic, an interest that inspired his brilliant book on metaphysics “The Perennial Philosophy”; he was eager to find a new path to the ineffable. Clare Boothe Luce (1903–87), playwright, former ambassador to Italy, and wife of Henry Luce (co-founder of Time magazine), sought relief from bereavement at the death by car accident of her 20-year-old daughter Ann.
The artist’s job is to discern patterns where the rest of us confront only static, and Broadway playwright James Lapine, collaborating with composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Michael Korie, saw the Grant/Huxley/Boothe Luce connection, and forged it into the first act of a coming full musical.
If you haven’t yet delighted in the works-in-progress unpacked every summer at the 8-year-old glam campus of Vineyard Arts Project (VAP), do pop in for next summer’s program. Sadly, “Flying Over Sunset” has flown, but future events are guaranteed to awaken your interest.
Last week, Mr. Lapine introduced the staged singing/reading with a compliment to his audience: He loved showcases on the Island because “you’re not jaded, disagreeable people like New Yorkers.” And then, in a wink to anyone who knew anything about psychedelics, he added, “Enjoy the trip!”
And suddenly we were transposed to 1953, where Cary Grant and his third wife (out of an eventual five), actress Betsy Drake (Jenni Barber), preside over a press conference. The dashing movie star is asked, “You announced your retirement in 1950, and then you made four more movies. Is your retirement announcement going to be a triannual event?”
Grant, played with uncanny mimicry by Tam Mutu, muses about the mistreatment of Charlie Chaplin at the hands of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, then sings, “something awaits me on an unexplored horizon.”
Next we’re in the world’s biggest drugstore, the Rexall in L.A. at Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega, where Aldous Huxley, played with intuitive perfection by Boyd Gaines; his wife Maria (Julia Murney); and friend, author, and theologian Gerald Heard (David Turner) study a vast array of deodorants. Huxley is made ebullient by the choices, and Heard murmurs, “You’re starting to feel the effects.”
Indeed, he is coming on to the “acid,” and the experience is apotheosized when he discovers a trove of art books. “Who’d have thought there’d be art books in a drug store?” He loses himself in the work of Sandro Botticelli. Huxley at this point in his life is very nearly blind, but he exults, “I’m seeing in watercolors!” And then Lapine, Kitt, and Korie kick into gear with a number that will bring the house down on the eventual Broadway stage: Projections of “The Return of Judith” range across the stage as two sopranos sing an exquisite aria alongside the great man, while he reflects on the pulsing light and Judith’s draped robes.
We catch up with Clare Boothe Luce (Christine Ebersole) as she faces a panel of senators about her suitability for the job as ambassador to Brazil. She sneers at the “Washington Boys’ Club” and their “brazen self-inflation.” Senator Fulbright berates her because, well, what else is new? he’s a Dem, she’s a sharply conservative Republican. Later we see Booth Luce at home taking her first LSD dose, administered by none other than the mild-mannered Gerald Heard. The drug kicks in splendidly for Clare. Her fraught features soften, she confronts her continuing grief over her lost daughter, and she sees, as if for the first time, the flowers in her own garden.
The storyboard roves to Heard as lead speaker at his daily meditation group. Next we catch up with Grant as he takes his first LSD excursion in a shrink’s office, where the movie star’s 10-year-old self (James Wise) materializes to sing with him. Huxley appears for a TV interview to launch “The Doors of Perception,” about his ontological adventures with mescaline. Maria, as ever at his back, sings that she’s dying; that she hasn’t yet told her physically fragile man, and without her, “How well will Huxley’s own eyes see?” We find Grant back in show biz: It turns out Alfred Hitchcock had shown up unannounced at the actor’s Palm Springs villa with a copy of the script of “To Catch a Thief” in his hands. And, sadly, Huxley presides at the funeral of his beloved Maria.
For the finale, Boothe Luce recalls her ingénue days in Malibu, when she was young and beautiful and could have any man in the world, as she dashed around town in her convertible with the top down. Her revelatory song, “Flying Over Sunset,” leaves with you as you exit the theater, follows you home, and reintroduces itself the next day. (I could sing it for you now, a week later, but don’t ask me to: I’m no Christine Ebersole.)
And this is just the first act!
Reached by phone shortly after the performances, Mr. Lapine said the intent of the second act will be to bring Grant, Huxley, Heard, and Booth Luce together for the psychedelic trip of a lifetime. “They weren’t young,” he noted, culling them from the youthful counterculture who a decade later misused the drug before going on to other recreational outlets.
Nowadays, he mused, LSD is being scrutinized as a possible enhancement for all of us boomers methodically losing our minds. Sandoz Laboratories, are you listening?
Mr. Lapine appreciates that VAP audiences know they’re watching “not a finished product” but, considering the massive talent brought to us from the biggest of apples, this unfinished product is inestimably good. To tune in, turn on (and not drop out), log on to vineyardartsproject.org.