Review: A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney

by Lynn on April 23, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Outside the March in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company.  Playing until May 12, 2024.

Written by Lucas Hnath

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set by Anahita Dehbonehie

Lighting by Nick Blais

Sound by Heidi Chan

Costumes by Niloufar Ziaee

Cast: Katherine Cullen

Diego Matamoros

Tony Ofori

Anand Rajaram

An interesting playwriting exercise by Lucas Hnath that illuminates how much of a miserable, self-absorbed narcissist Walt Disney was. One has to ask, “Why bother.” Stylish production created by Mitchell Cushman and his team, but again, the point?

 The Story. The unwieldy title of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is not a self-explanatory title. First, it’s not a public reading. It’s a bone fide rehearsed production with sets, costumes and lots of technology. It’s not an unproduced screenplay. It’s a produced play by Lucas Hnath that’s been around since 2013. And while some of it is about the death of Walt Disney, all of it focuses on the miserable, mean-spirited, self-absorbed, narcissist who was Walt Disney. In this play Walt Disney is a pompous, miserable, mean-spirited, self-absorbed narcissist, who is cruel to his staff and his family.

Walt Disney has written a screenplay supposedly about his life. In fact, it’s a conceit to interact with his brother Roy, his daughter (who has no name in the program which should tell you plenty) and his son-in-law Ron. In the play he wrangles with everyone, especially his brother Roy. Roy is the business manager for the huge Disney empire and Walt is the creative mind behind it. Roy deals with the unions and Walt wants to bust them. He does not want to pay a fair wage or treat the employees fairly. He wants to short-change, cheat and undercut everybody he meets including his brother and daughter. Walt revels in his achievements. He wants to build a city not another theme park.

Roy and the board thwart him because of the expense. We never hear any altruistic reason for building the city. Is this another self-imposed kudo to himself?  When things go wrong and it’s Walt’s fault, he blames his brother who seems to take it. His daughter is afraid of him. Walt wants her to name her unborn son after him. She hesitates. He says he will cut her out of his will without a penny if she refuses to name her son after him. He is interested in cryogenics and thinks about freezing his head to be thawed when there is a cure for disease…Walt died of lung cancer. This is not a nice man. He was creative to be sure. But the play isn’t about that. It’s about how lousy a human being he was.

The Production and comment. Lucas Hnath is an interesting playwright. I think he was experimenting with form with A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. He wrote a play called A Doll’s House Part II which looks at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House 15 years after Nora leaves her marriage to find herself. It’s fascinating.

He wrote Dana H, a verbatim one woman show about an experience his mother Dana Higginbothem endured when she was kidnapped for five months.

In it the actress playing his mother lip-syncs the words and reacts to their meaning of a recorded interview with Dana H, Lucas Hnath’s mother. He plays with the form of verbatim theatre and lip-synching.

With A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney Lucas Hnath is experimenting with form and dialogue. The dialogue between characters is choppy and incomplete. Characters interrupt each other in the middle of a sentence or sometimes finish the other’s sentences. It’s reminiscent of David Mamet dialogue. It that the point? To emulate dialogue from a playwright who is so connected with this type of dialogue that everybody else seems like they are copying him? Hmmmmm

And while this cast is wonderfully accomplished, there is a hesitation in the interruptions, as if they are too polite to interrupt. There is that hint of a pause that often bogs down the conversation. That said, there are also times when the intercutting is bang on.  

Is Lucas Hnath trying to show that Walt Disney was not as sweet as one thought from all those tv shows he introduced? I have to ask Why??? Why bother? The company was big enough for someone to have actually spilled the beans about how lousy a person Walt was. Or did he fire them all with a gag order and send them to oblivion? Hard to imagine. After all, Lucas Hnath seems to know. But truly, why bother? What is to be gained by this play except as a vanity exercise?

We seem to have to have known that Walt Disney was a genius for creating such beloved animated characters in beloved movies. We look at the fantasy worlds of Disneyland etc. Ever been to Disneyland? It’s a pristine place. There is not one piece of garbage on the ground. It’s picked up immediately. If a bench appears dirty or smudged in any way, it’s removed and repainted to its perfect sheen. There cannot be any hint of anything less than perfect there. Can you imagine the city he wanted to build with his name on it. Perfect and hideous.

Director Mitchell Cushman’s production is a creation of nuance, technological dazzle and subtext with lots of light changes (kudos to Nick Blais) and sound cues (ditto Heidi Chan). The set by Anahita Dehbonehie looks like Walt Disney’s swank office with a console with lots of buttons for Walt to push for the lights, sound, ability to distort a voice, and to set the raised circular stage to revolve slowly. There is a round table with chairs around it on the raised platform. Walt’s chair is high-backed, comfortable and with a cushion. The other chairs for ‘minions’ have a low back—not much support there—and have a leather seat.

There is a Mickey Mouse telephone on a table and a set of drinks in crystal bottles over there, in which the bottles are illuminated.

We enter the space to the sound of Disney cartoon character voices and snippets of signature music tunes for each. We wait looking at the set, listening to the sound effects. And wait. And wait for someone to appear. A door upstage left opens and we wait and wait. Walt (Diego Matamoros) appears, slowly, smiling. Ah yes, the ploy of keeping the underlings waiting to establish his power over us.

He holds a pile of scripts in his arms. He is dapper in a shirt, jacket, dark pants and a yellow bowtie, tied the old-fashioned way. It’s not a clip-on. He smiles benignly at us saying he’s written the screenplay. He distributes it to spaces around the table.

When he finishes his spiel, the other characters enter: Roy (Anand Rajaram), Ron (Tony Ofori) and Walt’s Daughter (Katherine Cullen) who doesn’t warrant a name just the title, Daughter. The characters begin reading the script, but Walt is actually directing and controlling the screenplay, often calling “cut to” to go to some other scene. The most wrangling is with Walt and Roy as Walt gets more and more agitated. Diego Matamoros as Walt unties his bowtie; stares down his brother, threatens him, denigrates him and belittles him. As Roy, Anand Rajaram is tempered, calm and generally accepts the invective. He’s been down this road with his brother before. Katherine Cullen as Daughter and Tony Ofori as Ron are watchful, especially Katherine Cullen. She reacts subtly and is always in the moment. Tony Ofori as Ron tries to win over his father-in-law who he must sense doesn’t like him—well Walt doesn’t actually like anybody. And he gets more and more crazed when he’s contradicted or thwarted, and certainly when he’s dying of the lung cancer that will kill him.

So this is a play about a rotter of a human being, gifted notwithstanding.

I just have to ask why did anyone bother doing this experiment of a play—just because Soulpepper had a hole in its schedule that Outside the March thought it had to fill?

Comment. Mitchel Cushman provides a programme in the form of a ‘script’ with three ‘holes’ on the side as if it should fit in a binder. Very clever.  His programme note itemizes the events since the play first appeared, with references to megalomaniacal billionaires who go into space or become president; a world chocking because of climate change. I would add an (anti)-social media of meanness and the spreading of lies. OOOOOkkkkaaaayyyyy. So why bother with the whole endeavor? We are trapped in a room with a man who created fantasy and timeless cartoon characters, who is a moral bankrupt. That is all that is revealed about him and how he treated people. One might say….ok, nice experiment, moving on.

Outside the March, in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company present:

Runs until May 12, 2024.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

NOTE: Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Pamela Thomson April 23, 2024 at 11:57 am

Lynn, as usual, I agree with your “Why?”. Glad I didn’t get a ticket.