Considering the notoriously scary reputation of Disney lawyers, it's pretty amazing that this show is running at all. Of course, Uncle Walt is now as much a part of American mythology as Uncle Sam, so it is the right of every artist to glorify, amplify, and demonize Disney as he sees fit. Playwright Lucas Hnath (Isaac's Eye) mostly opts for the latter in the world premiere of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney at Soho Rep. The result is a blood-pumping and often hilarious evening of theater that offers some truly revealing insights on the nature of the American dream.
The play is just what the title promises. As somber piano music plays on repeat in the background, the audience is herded up a narrow white staircase into what appears to be a wood-paneled boardroom, complete with fancy embedded dimmer lights and wall-to-wall Queen of Hearts red carpet. A bald man in a suit sits at a large oval table, furiously scribbling notes onto Post-its. This is Roy O. Disney (Frank Wood). Joining him onstage is his younger brother, Walt (Larry Pine), Walt's daughter (Amanda Quaid), and her idiot ex-football player husband, Ron (Brian Sgambati). They unclip their scripts in unison as Walt announces, "I'm Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It's about me."
The rest of the evening is indeed about Walt and his waning days on earth. Hnath melds fact with legend to create the story of a man who struggles to reengineer nature in his movies and theme parks and even seeks to cheat death through the science of cryogenics. (Yes, this play really goes there.) When Walt wishes upon a star, come hell or high water, his dreams come true. No request is too extreme.
Apropos of his God-like demeanor, Walt has tasked himself with reading the screenplay's editing cues. The "cut to"s come fast and furious between Walt's actual lines and you get the sense that this man is the ultimate control freak, attempting to direct his own life and death. Consumed by his work, and seemingly comprised more of raw ambition than human flesh, he is the Darth Vader of family entertainment.
Pine brings a human edge to the role, chain-smoking and downing an entire fifth of vodka during the 75-minute affair. Hnath has peppered Walt's lines with shop talk and expletives and Pine delivers them with the salty relish one would expect from a frustrated middle-aged used-car salesman, rather than the king of children's animation. His tongue is a machete that he uses to cut down those around him (most often his own brother).
As the long-suffering Roy, Wood glazes each line with the deadpan insincerity of Michael Bloomberg (as played by Fred Armisen). He is long beyond picking a fight with his pushy little brother and is clearly just counting the days until Walt kicks off.
Wood and Pine have a natural repartee that sets the pace for this lightning quick show. Much credit should be given to director Sarah Benson for producing the kind of tight and efficient delivery for which Hnath's script calls. Beyond being very funny, the poetic brevity and jarring choppiness of the dialogue captures the spirit of a generation of civic-minded Americans, like Disney, with big plans for buildings, infrastructure, and international organizations — many of which, though crumbling, are still in use today — and not enough time to accomplish it all.
Throughout the play, Walt is obsessed with the creation of what he is convinced will be his crowning achievement, a project that will revolutionize urban living: his Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. He is also convinced, and not incorrectly, that his successors will screw it up. Today we know it as EPCOT, the spiritual heart of Walt Disney World. It is a sprawling kingdom of cement and dreams where fanny-packed tourists can learn about hydroponics and "drink around the world." At least in that sense, Walt will have a way to relate to his namesake creation when he eventually thaws out.