Stage Door Review

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney

Friday, April 19, 2024


by Lucas Hnath, directed by Mitchell Cushman

Outside the March & Soulpepper Theatre, Young Centre, Toronto

April 17-May 12, 2024

Walt: “Technology … can fix almost anything”

American playwright Lucas Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) seems to be having a moment in Toronto. Three days after Crow’s Theatre’s production of his Dana H. closed on April 14, a co-production of another play by Hnath opened. Dana H. is notable for its bizarre concept of having its sole actor lipsynch her entire performance to a pre-recorded voice. The bizarreness of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is visible in the title. There is no unproduced screenplay and the play is not a public reading but a fully-staged production. Like Dana H., Walt Disney is a play about illusion and reality, particularly the relation of theatre to reality. Like Dana H., Walt Disney relies heavily on multiple layers of distancing. Unfortunately, Hnath has outsmarted himself in Walt Disney, and the play implodes under close examination.

Walt Disney purports to be a screenplay about Walt’s last years by Walt himself. Walt opens the play saying, “I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me”. That ought to be clear except there is no indication in the text whether we are meant to think the speaker is Walt Disney or merely an actor playing the role of Walt Disney. Further confounding the situation, Disney has written the screen play for a cast of four – Walt Disney, Walt’s brother Roy, Walt’s daughter Diane and Diane’s husband Ron. If we take the view of director Mitchell Cushman, the four named characters are not merely actors playing characters, but actors playing real people playing themselves. The overcomplicated frame of mirrors-within-mirrors begins with the first words and only becomes more of a burden as the play proceeds.

At the head of the table where the four sit, Walt has a control box where he can adjust the choice of music, level of sound and the type and level of lighting. Demonstrating even more that Walt is in control of the show, Walt takes on the task of reading the scene headings, with the option of switching to a new scene heading by saying “Cut to” if he is not pleased with a scene.

The audience is confronted not just with this highly artificial set-up but with a play written in an extremely artificial mode of speech. Characters speak only in fragments, initial pronouns and articles are omitted and thoughts are not completed. The New York Times review of the original production in 2013 called the language “hypercaffeinated David Mamet”. What The Times does not ask is how Walt in 1966 (the year he died) could be writing a screenplay in a style that did not yet exist. (Mamet’s first play appears in 1970.) Yet, even if Walt knew of such a style, he is so obviously old-fashioned he would never have used it.

The ten scenes of Walt’s screenplay deal with Disney’s move from animation into nature documentaries, with labour problems in the organization, with Walt’s demand that Diane name her next child after him, with Walt’s concealing his increasingly obvious ill health (he is dying of lung cancer) and with his desire to move his vision into the real world. He wants to build an ideal city in Florida. He does not want it to be a theme park but an actual city, his crowning achievement, “where people don’t die”. Consonant with this desire he reveals his plans to have his head frozen after death, held until mankind has conquered illness and replanted on a younger body so that he will live forever.

Along with being written in a style Walt could not have used, Hnath includes as the grand conclusion to his play the urban myth of Walt’s cryogenic immortality that has long been disproven. The question is why Hnath has had his version of Walt desire and imagine undergoing a procedure Walt did not desire and did not undergo. The answer is that the urban myth seems much more the right ending for a man whose legacy continues to endure long past his death than the reality of Walt’s being cremated two days after dying.

What Hnath is doing to Walt Disney is the same thing that we learn that Roy Disney did when producing the Oscar-winning nature documentary White Wilderness in 1958, part of the series called “True-Life Adventures”. Walt was convinced that the most fascinating aspect of lemmings was how they committed mass suicide by leaping over cliffs when their groups became over populated. When filming in Alberta (standing in for Alaska), the crew found that lemmings do not perform this extraordinary deed. Since it didn’t happen in reality, Roy decided why not show it happening anyway because that’s what people expect. So, Disney crew members captured lemmings (not even native to Alberta) and filmed the creatures as they were being shooed off a cliff into the Bow River (standing in for the Arctic Ocean). Walt’s cryogenic immortality, as with the lemmings’ mass suicide, is a case where the myth people believe is stronger than reality. The next question is why then is Hnath spreading this misinformation?

Even within the context of the text itself there is a major contradiction. We learn though the action that Walt is obsessed with protecting his reputation. For anything that goes wrong, like strikes of his workers or the discover of the lemming deaths, he forces Roy to take the blame so that the brand “Walt Disney” remains untarnished. Yet, the screenplay Walt Disney reveals so much of Walt’s deceit, betrayals and emotional blackmail of others that we have to wonder why would the Walt of the play write a screenplay that shows him up to be such a villain, the complete opposite to the cozy “Uncle Walt” image he wants to protect and preserve. Even if we understand that Hnath’s play is fiction, this unresolvable internal contradiction turns the play into nonsense.

Besides the inherent problems with the play, director Mitchell Cushman has decided not to follow Hnath’s explicit directions on how the play should be staged. For the set Hnath asks only for “A table cluttered with the stuff a cast might need of a day of table work”. Hnath insists, “All actors present at the reading table for the entire duration of the play. No one exits or enters”.

As for the set, Cushman has designer Anahita Dehbonehie create an elegant, carpeted space with the duplicated mouse logo. The play is staged in the round on the stage of the Baillie Theatre inside two circles of seats. Because of this setting, one of the switches on Walt’s control board is for the revolve on which the table stands. He can start and stop it and regulate the revolve’s turning speed. The benefit is that the revolve allows everyone to see the four actors at the table, plus the turning reminds one of an amusement park ride. The drawback is that it is far more elaborate than the simple public reading Hnath intended. Instead, the reading looks more like a private performance that Walt has coerced his three relatives into. Besides this, Cushman does have the actors exit and enter. Some like Ron and Diane leave the table to stand in the aisles, but Cushman has Roy leave the set entirely when he becomes disgusted with Walt.

Leaving the table because of anger is contrary to other statements in Hnath’s list of “How To Play It”: “Read it [the script] swiftly without rushing…. Avoid trying to play ‘emotion’ of the lines. Inflection takes time, and you don’t have that much time”. Cushman does just the opposite. All the actors play the emotion in their lines to the extent that it looks more like they are playing a scene from memory in a regular play rather than performing a reading. The actors may turn pages of the script in front of them, but direct confrontation between actors breaks not only the illusion of a reading but also the notion that Walt could have written such a text. The text suggests that Walt has no insight into those around him. The emotion actors put into the lines suggests that Walt actually does understand them and their feelings. Yet, again, one asks why Walt would represent the others’ conflicts with him so clearly? Hnath emphasizes that the play should proceed rapidly and even indicates where actors can take breaths. The original production took 75 minutes. As Hnath states, “Inflection takes time”, so it’s not a surprise that Cushman’s production takes 95 minutes.

The primary reason to see this strange work is to experience the magnificent performance of Diego Matamoros as Walt. Matamoros imbues every word he says to the others with disdain. People are useful to Walt only if they give him what he wants. If they do not, they become nothing. Matamoros is a model of how to gradate emotion in acting. He gives progressively brighter glimpses of Walt’s latent rage at the other three, and at the world that seems to be turning left rather than right, his voice increasing in volume with each new frustration, until he is finally shouting at the others. Although we see that much that motivates Walt’s actions is his fear of death, once Walt finally embraces a death he thinks will be temporary, Matamoros softens his tone as if Walt has entered a state of awe beyond anything he experienced in life.

Anand Rajaram gives one of his best-ever performances as Roy Disney. From the very first lines, we see how Walt belittles Roy out of habit, even while he leaves Roy all his messes to clean up. When topics like strikes or lemmings arise, Walt’s tone becomes more derisive. Rajaram shows that Roy responds to all of Walt’s insults with a calm, conciliatory façade that Roy finds increasing difficult to maintain. When Walt finally takes a step too far in humiliating Roy, Roy with bottled-up rage exits the stage. If Roy remained at the table, as in Hnath’s conception, the effect would not be as emotional but it could very well be more disturbing.

Hnath, via Walt, gives Diane (called only “Daughter”) and her husband Ron Miller almost nothing to say. We wonder whether Walt has asked the two to be present just to humiliate them. After almost a half hour of silence, Diane does speak when Walt demands that she name her soon-to-be-born son after him or else lose her inheritance. Hnath/Walt gives her a scathing speech in which she spills out all her hatred for her father and for his tyrannical love of control. Katherine Cullen puts so much emotion into this speech we could cheer except that we know the speech will only bring Walt’s retaliation down upon her.

Hnath, via Walt, gives Ron even less to say and the character has no grand speech. In the Dramatis Personae, Hnath describes Ron as “son-in-law, dumb jock, a Golden Retriever of a person”. Tony Ofori does what he can with such an unrewarding role. Ofori shows that Ron mistakenly believes he is as good at scheming as Walt, unaware that his paltry attempts at scheming are all too obvious.

If you are a person who can appreciate great acting on its own, this production of Walt Disney will give you much to savour in the performances of Matamoros and Rajaram. If you want a play to tell a good story well, this is not the play for you. Hnath’s Walt Disney is more of a character study and a demonstration of the old maxim of historian Lord Acton that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Many people will enjoy the play as a scorching takedown of Walt Disney as an icon, yet you will have to wonder how logical it is that Hnath has Walt write such a takedown of himself. To judge Hnath’s play properly we would have to see a production that followed Hnath’s intentions. Cushman has given us his own take on the play which seems only to exacerbate its contradictions. If one wants a thoroughly revisionist view of Walt Disney, better to read the biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006) by Neal Gabler than sit through Hnath’s extraordinarily overelaborate self-destructing fiction.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Diego Matamoros as Walt and Katherine Cullen as Daughter; Ananda Rajaram as Roy, Tony Ofori as Ron, Katherine Cullen as Daughter and Diego Matamoros as Walt; set for Walt Disney by Anahita Dehbonehie; Diego Matamoros as Walt. © 2024 Dahlia Katz.

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