The latest offering from the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse finds Timothy Leary in a living room lab, with a tray of sugar cubes soaked in LSD for his day’s volunteers: the poet Allen Ginsberg; American Buddhist Alan Watts; Mary Pinchot Meyer, D.C. socialite and mistress of J.F.K.; and a darling, dancing Rosemary Woodruff, destined to become Leary’s fourth wife.
What happens in this room is the brainchild of L.A.- and M.V.-based writer Larry Mollin. “High Time” is the last in his trilogy of three plays set in the ’60s. “The Screenwriter’s Daughter” explored the frayed relationship between blacklisted Hollywood writer Ben Hecht and his actress daughter. “Search: Paul Clayton” traced a complicated tug-of-art between a forgotten Village folksinger and his protégé-turned-music-god Bob Dylan. Both dramas were engrossing, but, hands-down, “High Time” is Mr. Mollin’s masterpiece.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Larry and his wife Dee (they met on the Vineyard) ever since 1977, when the two of them barreled from the East Coast to the West on Mollin’s motorcycle. Young Larry was a gorgeous actor at the time, with a background in theater at Ithaca College, Toronto, and New York. In Tinseltown, he showed me several spec movie scripts. I could tell at once he was a natural-born writer. Farewell acting. He went on to write for various TV shows, and landed, as executive producer, in the luxe lap of “Beverly Hills 90210.”
But on to “High Time.” One rarely sees a production in which every actor delivers an impeccable performance, but this play, the first in the season’s lineup, is cast to perfection by artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo and casting director Michele Ortlip. The normally clean-shaven leading man David Henry Gerson portrays a bearded, rumpled, mind-bubbling Allen Ginsberg, who exhibits his brilliance — knocked out of the box by LSD — with endearing glee. At one point he stands on a landing and unloads his own poetry: “Lysergic acid! … It is a multiple million eyed monster hidden in all its elephants and selves. It hummeth in the electric typewriter. It is electricity connected to itself. If it hath wires it is a vast Spiderweb and I am on the last millionth infinite tentacle of the spiderweb; a worrier lost, separated, a worm, a thought, a self, I, Allen Ginsberg a separate consciousness who wants to be God. I who wants to hear the infinite minutest vibration of eternal harmony. I who am Doomed!“
David P.B. Stephens plays with equal dignity and torment 20th century Zen icon Alan Watts. Those of us who’ve read Watts’s books such as “Joyous Cosmology” understand that he’s open to psychedelic drugs only insofar as they connect him to the divine; nothing else, not the giggles, not the sex, not the opportunity to delve into his uptight Protestant childhood. Watts famously said, and Mollin reprises the line midway through the session, “If you get the message, hang up the phone,” meaning stop taking the drug.
Mary Pinchot Meyer (Victoria Adams-Zischke) is an inspired choice for Mollin’s circle of acid-bombed luminaries. (All the participants at one time sampled LSD under Leary’s tutelage, so there is no fiction here other than assembling them in a single group.) Ms. Meyer was a painter, and a D.C. insider once married to top CIA official Cord Meyer, whom Mary suspects has her under strict surveillance, less because he noodles over what his ex is doing than because she’s having romantic hookups with the leader of the Western world. A car comes for her several times a week, and she and J.F.K. meet in their own secret salon at the White House.
This might lead some viewers of the play to ponder a new conspiracy theory surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. By the way, Mary Pinchot Meyer herself was shot execution-style on Oct. 12, 1964, on the towpath of a Washington canal, following hard on the heels of Ms. Meyer’s challenge of the Warren Report. (I mused about a new conspiracy angle to Larry Mollin the day after I attended the play, but he wouldn’t say yes and he wouldn’t say no.)
The main attraction of “High Time” is Timothy Leary. Guru or circus master? The talented actor Mark Coffin plays him with equal dedication and smarm. Missing, of course, is his partner in the Harvard trials, Richard Alpert, who for intriguing reasons is detained from this afternoon’s group. As an historical note, after the university fired the two professors, Leary went on in life to plug psychedelics for all they’re worth, and Alpert transformed himself into Ram Dass, so that, like Watts, like Aldous Huxley, his search was for meaning.
Rachel Claire plays the young and future Mrs. Leary with lissome delight. In contrast, Autumn Chiklis as Lisa Bieberman, Leary’s earnest assistant, suffers the dubious honor of being the only sane and sober person in the room.
Director Randal Myer and choreographer Toni Cohen amp up the LSD session from oversize personalities sitting sober in a room to acid-induced bliss, freak-outs, pass-outs, make-outs, to overall getting their groove on. The crew throws equal talent into the fray: Lisa Pegnato for scenic design; Jeffrey E. Salzberg, lighting design; Cynthia Bermudes, costumes; Petra Lent McCarron, sound and production; Christine Lomaka, stage managing, and Ernest W. Iannaccone, production managing.
“High Time” will be showing through June 25. Go and see it with your smartest and most questing friends. You’ll stay up all night — without drugs — to discuss every last bit of this play and the sparks it brings up.
For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.