Review: “A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney” by the New Haven Theater Company

Noah Golden

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

As much as it is our duty as critics to remain impartial, I will admit that I have come to greatly admire the New Haven Theater Company [NHTC], a tight community of professional and non-professional theater artists who perform in a black box attached to an Elm City antique shop. I don’t know any NHTC members personally, but as a supporter of the Connecticut theater scene, it brings me joy to see a talented tribe of artists mounting adventurous and offbeat American plays with such expertise. It’s surely a tricky proposition for community theater groups to forgo more commercially viable, “popular” shows with large casts in favor of audacious works by up-and-comers like Lucas Hnath and Will Eno. But the gamble is paying off and NHTC is gaining a reputation for producing intimate, high-quality theater with a low price tag. I greatly enjoyed my first two trips to NHTC, seeing the dark comedy “Trevor” and the whimsical “Middletown” (both of which I reviewed for this site).

That is all a preamble to say I was excited to return for the start of their 2017-2018 season.

Unfortunately, “A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney” is the least successful show I’ve seen from them. Like its long title, “Disney” is an unwieldy, idiosyncratic play that needs a firm artistic hand to pull off. But the flaws of the script were exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, by Drew Gray’s direction. That certainly wasn’t the case for “Trevor,” which Gray directed last year with an assured eye for visual comedy.

 “Disney” is written by Lucas Hnath, whose “Doll’s House, Part II” made a splash on Broadway last year. I can’t speak to that show or the half-dozen other plays listed on his resume, but “Disney” provides a fascinating, if not maddening, introduction to his work. This high concept piece follows a fictionalized Walt Disney leading a reading of a screenplay he ostensibly wrote on his deathbed. The real Walt died at age 65 after chain-smoking for most of his adult life. Reading the script in a bare room are Walt, his brother Roy, his unnamed daughter and her husband Ron. Whether these are actors or the real figures is never clarified. What is clear is that this Walt Disney isn’t the cheery, child-friendly genius we know today. He’s a loud, egocentric jerk who browbeats his brother and is alternatively cold and needy towards his daughter. Despite a cancer diagnoses, he still smokes heavily and swills vodka.

The script Disney wrote is a warts-and-all hodgepodge of his life, cutting from conversations with Roy about a future Disney theme park to discussions of a nature documentary and his worsening health. We also see snippets of heartbreaking exchanges where Walt demands his yet-unborn grandson be named after him.

This all sounds fascinating and there are glimmers of real genius here. Hnath isn’t so much interested in Walt Disney as a person (his highly fictionalized version does want to be cryogenically frozen – a myth that has been busted long ago) as Walt Disney the icon trying to secure his place in pop culture after his death. Nowadays, Walt Disney is something like a secular saint in American culture and a face of good will world-wide. But at the time of his death in 1966, five years before Disney World opened, he was merely a famous film director. So notice how in “Disney” nearly every scene in his screenplay relates to furthering his legacy. It’s a tragic look at a man whose quest for immortality, whether on ice or in Americana, cost him nearly everything.

But it’s hard to feel much for Walt when Hnath’s script is so repetitive and fragmented. Nearly every line is split and overlapped like some sort of Mametian fever dream. Words and phrases are often repeated in odd ways that make you wonder why Roy Disney is speaking like Rain Man. To make it worse, Walt not just reads his own dialogue but a frustrating amount of interrupting screen direction that – interior –make it hard – cut to – for the audience to – Walts home or – be emotionally invested – inside his office – and easily follow the story – cut to

Perhaps these tics are meant to show Walt’s inability to let others speak or perhaps they have some deeper meaning, I’m frankly not sure. Under another director’s guidance maybe the language would come off less like a masturbatory writing exercise. But that’s largely not the case here. The main problem is that I’m not sure Mr. Gray can figure out the quandary I posed at the top of this paragraph. Without a perceived grasp on Hnath’s stylistic choices, he pitches all the dialogue at a furious warp speed. That choice suited the first half of the play, but your mind becomes numb to the spoken ping-pong game after a solid hour. In the script, Hnath writes that “the rhythm and musical effect of the language is king. Never let it get staccato.” But this production’s dialogue is metronomic in its pace and begs for some other tempos or time signatures. Gray does fare much better dealing with other aspects of the production: his musical score is on-point and the one sweeping visual touch, involving a Hansel And Gretel-like trail of bloody tissues, was tragically beautiful.

The cast do what they can with the difficult material and stationary staging. J. Kevin Smith, speaking in a hoarse boom of a voice, showcases Walt’s desperate neediness and his bullying narcissism well. Steve Scarpa, Melissa Smith and Trevor Williams keep up with his blistering pace and each have moments to shine. But with Walt Disney (or at least this Walt Disney) it’s hard to get a word in edgewise.

Seeing the New Haven Theater Company’s “A Public Reading Of An Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney” was a frustrating experience. I kept wanting Hnath’s script to dig deeper into these characters and lean less on peculiar verbal crutches. Now in writing this review, I want to support the company and insure their seats are filled. But I can’t in all good conscious recommend “Disney” except to hardcore theater lovers who want an introduction to Hnath’s work or enjoy stylized, harshly poetic dialogue. What I can do is urge readers to give NHTC a shot for the next two shows in their season: “The Dumb Waiter” and “Rumors.” Despite a few missteps, NHTC is a company all New Haven-area theatergoers should be aware of.

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