Man in the Flying Lawn Chair is the story of a California truck driver named Larry Walters who attaches 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair one afternoon and soars 16,000 feet into the sky. Believe it or not, it is a true story--which is one of the requirements of the From Page to Stage series at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, in which real-life tales are dramatized for the theater.
Biography can be tedious on stage unless it is dealt with creatively. Fortunately, director Eric Nightengale and his ensemble of five actors take the creative approach, helping to make Lawn Chair an often delightful, if overlong, story of a dreamer who dared to try something that most of us have always longed, deep down inside, to do: fly.
Despite his success in achieving his dream, Larry Walters never quite achieved happiness, and in 1993, eleven years after his flight, he ended his own life. The play starts right before that moment, with Larry (Toby Wherry) listening to a broadcast where two radio hosts hash over and laugh at his fantastic--yet mostly forgotten--escapade. Every laugh pains Larry. That's the tragedy of his story: He always wanted to fly and got that chance, but few people took what he did seriously. And flying meant everything to him; it was a serious business. This world is a tough place for dreamers. Larry, for one, couldn't bear it any longer.
Flash back to the beginning.
The action starts with Larry at Sears, picking out the perfect lawn chair. The saleswoman calls their best model the "Cadillac of lawn chairs." They both admire it and discuss its virtues. Larry sits in it, reverentially. It's a great scene, very silly and very over-the-top. This is Larry's story, so we're living in his world, which isn't a very grounded one. There's his girlfriend Carol (Kimberly Reiss), and Carol's mom (Carey Cromelin), Larry's co-worker Tom (Troy W. Taber), and the little girl from next door (Monica Read). But all of these people slip out of character regularly, populating the rest of Larry's world. A conceit throughout the play is the use of garage-type props for everyday activity. A can of spray paint becomes wine, and an iron is used for a phone. This all establishes a slightly surreal atmosphere that keeps us concentrating on the story rather than the trifles of "reality." This is important in a play where the main event is a man soaring 16,000 feet into the air on a lawn chair.
What Lawn Chair really has going for it is a fabulous premise and a talented, funny group of actors. At its best, an ensemble effort like this offers the opportunity to see people who work well together play off one another with great comic timing and to do some creative vamping. The play offers these things in spades, particularly shining with the unexpected moments. Music is used to great effect, whether it's a well-chosen song ("99 Luftballoons," anyone?), a moment where Larry and Carol alternate in frantically humming movie theme music, or a disco dance break used during the sequence where Larry finally leaves the ground. It doesn't make much sense in print, but on stage, it's inspired.
The only real problem with the show--but one that unfortunately affects a great deal of it--is length. The first half moved at quite a rapid pace and built up to Larry's flight, which might have even been an appropriate ending. But the ensemble chose to tell the whole of Larry's story, so there is the second half of the play about how he deals with the post-flight fame, and his life leading up to his suicide. Not surprisingly, this all feels a bit anti-climactic. That's not to say that much of it isn't funny, and it certainly does allow us to get a full portrait of this man and his life. But scenes drag on too long, and too much time is spent making points that could have been made much quicker. The show could use some tightening all around, and would probably benefit immeasurably from cutting half of the post-flight scenes.
In these days where everyone is jumping off of bridges and out of planes to get an adrenaline rush, Larry Walters' dream of sitting back and enjoying the sky while drifting up to the heavens almost seems quaint. But Man in the Flying Lawn Chair, though imperfect, is nonetheless a fitting and loving tribute to this cult hero.