Imagine that Gordon Gecko wrote a screenplay about the end of his life, cast himself in the mold of King Lear, and used it to gleefully lay bare his totalitarian fantasies and mythic failures. Then imagine him reading his creation aloud. That’s the setup for Lucas Hnath’s ambitiously titled A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, now playing under Sarah Benson’s direction at Soho Rep. Instead of Gecko, devilish symbol of unfettered greed, Hnath offers Walt Disney, progenitor of the loveable characters and utopian theme parks that have raised generations of Americans. Making an antihero out of Disney lets Hnath twist the knife deeper in this searing and grizzly portrait of the pathology of the plutocrat. Contrary to certain left-populist stereotypes, members of Disney’s wealthy class aren’t just nihilistically cackling their way to the bank—in their minds, they’re saving the world from itself.
Benson has cleverly cast the play in a board room, the court of the corporate kingpin. She and set designer Mimi Lien have transformed Soho Rep’s entire theater space into a corporate presentation center, with overly upholstered seats and wood-lacquered walls. The four actors sit behind a large mahogany table in obsessively comfortable chairs that they roll around the room. The unbound copies of the scripts mix with other assorted objects—coffee mugs, office supplies, a vegetable tray, iPods, and ashtrays—to become the detritus of our antihero’s life. We’re squarely in Disney’s world, and it’s up to lighting designer Matt Frey and sound designer Matt Tierney to gently and unobtrusively warp that world into a magical-realist nightmare. The transition they make is one of the more haunting elements of the production.
The chief weakness of this darkly imaginative play is its heavy handedness. Disney, played by Larry Pine, smokes, coughs, and callously manhandles his way through the plot as his ever-evolving lung cancer rots him from the inside—just like evil is want to do to Disney film villains. We take pleasure first in his wickedness and then in his comeuppance, but there’s little new to learn here about the evil that men do. At worst, A Public Reading is a melodrama for the anti-capitalist crowd.
So be it. Hnath’s indictment of Disney is both clever and total. Disney’s greatest fear is death, so as he plans his cryogenic immortality he also prepares plans for a majestic and “perfect city” with no “problems” and “experts for everything,” Plato’s ideal republic on Earth. Ultimate power’s ultimate weakness, it seems, is its own mortality, and Disney will gladly sacrifice everyone around him in his doomed attempt to avoid it. He’s already lost his daughter, played with bitterness but no bite by Amanda Quaid. But he seduces his son-in-law (Brian Sgambati) into joining his team after flicking away his subservient and devoted brother, Roy (Frank Wood). Wood is especially ingenious casting here, since his character’s broken soul, like a sad but tamed lion, stands in stark contrast to his most recognizable theatrical role, Roy Cohn in the 2010 revival of Angels in America. Cohn’s fate, then, shadows Disney’s throughout his production; Walt and Roy could well be interchangeable, since behind every tyrant is the timid little man he knows he could have been.
The evening, though, belongs to Pine, who inhabits Disney’s spectacular ego with obvious relish. Part of Pine’s virtuosity comes from the fact that Hnath gives him both Disney’s dialogue and the screenplay’s slug lines. “Close on Walt. Walt is good. Walt is doing good, looking good” he begins. Pine’s brusque, off-hand style is at home in this odd form of self-narrativizing. He appears not to be acting, and the effort to keep up that façade becomes the dramatic motor of the play. The interchange between these directions, spoken into a microphone, and the dialogue, spoken to the audience, pays off as the balance between them blurs. The camera direction “Cut to” eventually becomes an unreferential motif, a musical drumbeat that, like the beating of Disney’s heart, becomes increasingly frenetic and haphazard before finally going silent.
Pine brings a ballet dancer’s grace to Disney’s tragic death scene, and Benson gives her antihero the ending he always wanted, and that he could only write himself into. Not until the play’s final moments do we realize that every other actor has disappeared from the stage, and Disney expires—as special as a god, and just as alone.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is running at Soho Rep. For tickets, click here.