It seems perfect timing that I should mention my trip to Soho Rep to see “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney” (whew, a mouth full), a play by Lucas Hnath detailing the last days of Walt Disney’s life.
On Thursday, following many stellar reviews, it was announced that Soho Rep will be extending the run of the production for another two weeks — until June 9.
Last Saturday, thanks to Katherine at Food Fitness and Fantasy, I was in the audience of “A Public Reading”. Soho Rep is an almost-hidden theater on Walker Street and the actual space for the play was very small; the set was comprised of a conference room desk, a few chairs, some snacks and water, and a microphone for the narrator.
Basically, the production is Walt Disney (Larry Pine) performing in an actual reading of a play he has written about himself. He is not exactly the man we would call Uncle Walt either. He demands to be right all the time (when it comes to strikes at the studios; he wants Roy to take the fall), he doesn’t care that his relationship with his daughter Diane is going down the drain, and he is not shy to express his true feelings to Ron Miller’s face. (He’s a silly football player with very little brain power.)
If you think a lot of people in the Disney community see Walt as a God, this play runs steadily in the complete opposite direction. Not caring who it hurts in the process. I almost wish there had been a disclaimer before the play (either spoken outloud or in a program) that “these events are not based on facts” because maybe I would have been a little less distracted by my brain constantly examining the dusty files up there when it comes to Walt Disney history.
That being said, Hnath is an innovative playwright, who has created such a rich, insightful, and fast-paced piece of theater. Many times, characters were completing each other’s sentences, one word to each person, and it created such a fantastic rhythm within the entire production. This play was not meant to teach us about Walt Disney but to show us the downfall of a man who wants to be remembered as the most powerful, innovative man in the world: whether he’s building a whole city or having his grandchild named after him.
He is so desperate to be loved he will stop at nothing.
Under the tight direction of Sarah Benson, Amanda Quaid (Diane), Frank Wood (Roy), and Brian Sgambati (Ron Miller) were fantastic as they each had their turn to go head-to-head with Walt. It seems he got meaner and more ambitious as his body got weaker and his time dwindled down to non-existent.
I’m hoping, like me, the audience was not inclined to take the events in the play just for what they were but to research the hell out of them afterwards. I spent a good amount of time reading reviews, learning about Hnath (an Orlando native who grew up hearing the fireworks from Walt Disney World from his house), and attempting to sort fact from fiction.
It’s kind of crazy to think about Walt as this guy guzzling down pills with vodka, or not caring that his brother’s marriage is in trouble. Or maybe that his daughter, Diane, doesn’t like to think of him at all. While I’m thankful for all that he has done, which has somehow managed to inspire me years after he has been gone, I think it’s more important to remember that Walt was human; he was a real man with (I’m sure) family conflict, a fear of leaving this earth and not having enough time to create all he wanted, and a demanding work ethic.
This is why I don’t agree with “Walt would never want that” as an argument in response to any of the decisions the Walt Disney Company makes. There are so many shades of gray. How do we really know something like that?
There’s a lot to be said about power, making a statement, and totally losing yourself in your work and ego. “A Public Reading” did an effective job of depicting this darkness, perhaps even more emphasized because our main “character” was responsible for so much happiness and fantasy in the real world.
I think the best kind of theatre is the kind that gets you revved up, anxious to discuss and explore and to be critical. I’m definitely happy I was introduced to Hnath’s work and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.