Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney
In Lucas Hnath's 2014 play, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, we experience both the man we loved for making our dreams come true and the man who destroyed the dreams of others in pursuit of his own. Directed by Joseph Megel, this production of Manbites Dog Theater and StreetSigns features Walt Disney in his final days, clutching the dreams he has for a City of Tomorrow that he will never live to see, and riding a rollercoaster of paranoia and narcissism.
Derrick Ivey, who recently appeared in the title role of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at MDT, gives us a convincing Walt Disney, who, like Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons," is consumed by his quest for power and influence. Disney himself has written this screenplay-within-a-play and he portrays the other three characters to suit himself. His brother Roy, performed heartbreakingly by Elisabeth Lewis Corley, is the brains and heart of the company but a defeated man, always coming in second to Walt. Walt's son-in-law Ron is a former college football star, and David Berberian plays him with the simple-minded humor of a four year old walking through Disneyland for the first time. Ron will develop into a henchman for the hero turned villain, as Walt tries to sabotage his own company in the face of his impending demise. Walt's daughter Diane, played skillfully by Lakeisha Coffey, stands up to him, even as he threatens to disown her if she does not name her next child after him.
Though Walt Disney looks as you would expect, in his usual gray suit, slicked back gray hair and mustache, the other three are caricatures that show how Walt sees them. His emasculated brother is portrayed by a woman. His estranged daughter is black. His son-in-law is a dumb, bumbling brute. Walt casts himself as the victim, unwilling to acknowledge his role in the problems surrounding him. "If people don't see the problems, then there aren't any problems," he insists. This play gives us an intimate portrait of a fanatic who struggles to control the uncontrollable universe, oblivious to the destruction within himself.
Sonya Leigh Drum's fifties office is simple yet effective, and Andrew Parks's lighting creates effective transitions and moods on a set that barely changes. Parks's sound and video design incorporates recognizable songs from Disney films, eerily rearranged by contemporary artists. His video projections morph the set from Disney's blueprints for the City of Tomorrow to abstract color washes and EKG readings, omens of what's to come. Hnath's play incorporates fragmented dialogue that bounces among different characters, and at times that makes it difficult to follow the train of thought, but this cast does about as well as could be expected with that challenge.
Walt's son-in-law did eventually become the head of the company, and Walt's plans for its demise did not come to be. The City of Tomorrow was transformed into a corporate theme park, and the brand has become one of the largest conglomerates in the world. One wonders what the world would be like if Walt's vision had been completed, and if he would be satisfied with what his brand name has evolved into. I guess we can ask him ourselves in the future when his cryogenic head is defrosted and brought back to life.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is presented at the Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster Street, Durham, NC through October 1st, 2016. Tickets are $20 Friday/Saturday/Sunday and $12 Wednesday/Thursday. Discounts available: Seniors (62 plus), Military, Youth/Students. Tickets can be purchased online at www.manbitesdogtheater.org or by phone at 919-682-3343
Playwright: Lucas Hnath