Review of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company
New Haven Theater Company’s current offering is the kind of play that intrigues almost as much as it amuses. Why Walt Disney?, we might ask. The answer seems to be that he’s larger than life—or at least his legacy is—and everyone knows his name, whether or not they know anything else about him. And name recognition is the name of the game, in show-biz.
It’s also the case that author Lucas Hnath includes some choice bits from the rumors circulating about “Uncle Walt.” Like that bit about the lemmings being catapulted off a cliff by turntables for a nature documentary. Or his interest in the ability of cryogenics to freeze a human head and resuscitate it after a synthetic body could be created for its use. Or the way he treated his brother Roy, or daughter Diane and her husband Ron. Or the problem of the tree that had to remain on the site of Disney World.
In A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Disney is a colorful character, to say the least, and, as enacted by J. Kevin Smith, he’s a hoot. Not a figure of fun so much as a figure for something we might imagine to be indicative of American tastes and interests. He’s a wry example of our need to be the best at something, and to make our achievements seem important and unprecedented.
In Hnath’s play, directed by Drew Gray, Walt is a successful man who is remarkably insecure, a family man who is remarkably alone, a creative person who feels that his trademark works—that famous mouse, for instance—aren’t really serious or enduring, a creator of films known for their emotion and humor who often seems unfeeling and lacking in any sense of humor. He’s complex and a spout of words and attitudes, and Smith’s rendering is a high-water mark in this actor’s work with NHTC. Smith often plays a bristly type and here he gets to take that as far as it can go. Smoking, drinking, pill-popping, pacing, Smith’s Disney is a wreck waiting to happen.
The play isn’t really about finding out what makes Walt tick so much as it’s about seeing how Walt winds down bit by bit, his health failing and his will to go on causing him to flail about, seizing upon his staunchly stoical brother Roy (Steve Scarpa, mostly poker-faced or pained) or his servile son-in-law Ron (Trevor Williams, a cipher trying to be whatever Walt wants him to be). Of course, Disney’s insistence on a male heir apparent means he passes over his daughter (Melissa Smith, tensely tried by her ties to the old man). Her refusal to name any of her sons—she has three—after her father pretty much says it all, but then there’s her reasoning about it, which liberally rubs salt into the wound. We could say she has some issues with her dad, but it’s more like being his daughter is simply a test, always.
We might, reasonably, wonder why we should care about a man so long gone. His brand went on without him, hit the skids a bit and then revived to, basically, conquer all of entertainment in our time. Besides owning all those lucrative properties originated by Disney and his studios and affiliates, the company now also owns the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Comics franchise. Which means that the company Disney founded generally commands the top three, or more, of the top grossing films in just about any year.
And that may be Hnath’s point: we can’t escape him, if we care at all about American filmed entertainment, and so there must be some way to cut him down to size, to humanize him, to get his blood—literally, as we see him cough mouthfuls into hankies—and guts on the stage. Disney comes across as a relentless striver, driven to do what only he can do. His list of who watches his films includes the all-American actress Doris Day and fascist enemies like Mussolini and Hitler. He’s proud of it all. It’s not about Right or Left, or right or wrong, it’s about global reach.
The conceit that we’re watching a reading of a screenplay means that, first of all, everyone is still “on book,” ostensibly, and it also means that there’s plenty of use of phrases like “cut to”—not a stage direction but a screenplay direction. And yet the “cuts” aren’t really cuts and the film that may or may not be in Walt’s head rarely resorts to visual language. There are a few moments, most notably the close, where the screenplay idea works best. Otherwise, it just seems an odd tic of the dialogue; at best, a way of helping the actors keep the pace, at worst a gimmick.
Smith and Scarpa get the rhythmic patter dead on, a kind of snappy overlapping of verbal cues and reactions where the comment of one often gets finished or deflected by the other. With the younger generation, Smith’s Disney is more contentious because more determined to have his way. As Disney’s daughter, Melissa Smith gives as good as she gets, seeming to be a sore spot for her father and able to use that to advantage. Williams’ Ron seems mostly to be trying to keep his head above water, finding himself primed for the job of studio head when Walt needs to use Roy as a fall guy.
Somewhere in all the give-and-take, we may suppose a lesson about the carnage that lurks behind even the most beloved accomplishments. And yet the play isn’t a character assassination of Disney, it’s more like a cartoon treatment, comparable to his early creations. Disney is as irascible as Donald Duck, as flighty as Goofy, and as challenged as Mickey’s generally chagrined efforts at control. In other words, Disney gets the Disney treatment and, to quote the creation of a rival studio, “th-th-that’s all, folks!”
The play has four more showings, this Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday's show is "pay what you can."
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed and designed by Drew Gray
Cast: Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams
New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 2017