I don’t know if Disney Jail is a real thing or not, but I am convinced there’s a hidden sadism gurgling below “the happiest place on earth”—both because I’m a degenerate who feeds off disparaging things that normal people enjoy, like family fun, but also because America is full of lies and violence and greed, and it’s often those pushing wholesomeness and positivity that are doing most of the bullshitting and violence and greed.
Both of those guttural impulses animate Lucas Hnath’s new play “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About The Death of Walt Disney,” being staged at Single Carrot Theatre, which takes us behind the scenes of Walt’s life as a businessman, a (mostly shitty) father, and (at best serviceable) film producer in the process of expanding his successful film studio into a media empire.
Hnath’s play dirties the Walt Disney story in exactly the opposite way that Disney sanitized the gory folk tales that inspired films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” It also takes some poetic liberties with his life story.
“The Death of Walt Disney” is presented to us as a table read of Walt’s (played by Paul Diem) own autobiography-screenplay, a rich guy memoir written with the most masturbatory of intentions (think George W. Bush’s “Decision Points”) and formulaic plotting (“scene two: unions!”). Walt is not a great writer. Walt’s brother Roy (Mohammad R. Suaidi), his unnamed daughter (Meghan Stanton), and her husband Ron (Eric Poch)—the only other characters—are handcuffed to the table, perhaps metaphorically. There’s a requisite bottle of vodka on the table too, a playwright’s requirement if one wishes to write about troubled genius.
Walt aspires to greatness in the abstract, the kind where you put your name on things and take credit for other people’s work, as Walt frequently does to brother Roy, his closest business associate and chief lackey. As Walt puts it, “What’s the point if you’re not one of the most important people who ever lived? Most people—not important!”
And important people watch his movies, he’s quick to point out. “FDR saw my movies,” Walt humble brags to whoever will listen (usually brother Roy). “Jerry Lewis, Groucho Marx—fans. Senator McCarthy—friend. . . . Mussolini took his kids to see my movies. All of them—big fans!”
Films or plays about powerful men are often epics themselves. From “Citizen Kane” to “There Will Be Blood,” directors fashion elaborate productions to the oppressive scale of the their characters’ own egos. Hnath’s script instead opts for the smaller moments that betray Walt’s essential qualities, which are almost all bad here: insecurity, megalomania, lack of empathy—the usual tycoon tendencies.
Walt is quickly becoming a sick old man, however, a fact we’re clued into by his spontaneous bouts of coughing up blood. The fact that he has cancer is about the only thing that provokes us to feel sympathy for him.
Perhaps Walt’s most damning routine is his constant beating down of brother Roy, who takes the fall for Walt’s mistakes and abdicates the credit for his own successes.
Women especially are made invisible in Walt’s autobiography script. His (again, tellingly unnamed) daughter is given little time to speak, and Walt, in a pathetically misconstrued attempt to leave a romantic phone message for his wife (who is never on stage, and never heard offstage) says this: “I liked how you were working for me when we met. I liked how you’d draw the things that I thought up.”
All the film language (Walt says “cut to” when we move to a new scene) makes me wish “The Death of Walt Disney” was a film—I flip through the cinematic possibilities in my head: Walt, in a limousine, busting through his employees’ picket line; armies of underpaid sweatshop illustrators, scribbling furiously to create millions of Mickey and Goofy frames in a smoky, sun-drenched Los Angeles warehouse; cranes clawing mud out from backwater Florida marshes; dusty old reels of crude, retro Mickey Mouse cartoons.
By the nature of how Walt’s screenplay is framed, we’re given unencumbered access to his psyche. We are so inundated by Walt’s perspective that it’s almost like a one-man play where Walt’s id is our narrator (“close up on Walt” is a common phrase). The result is that the play focuses almost exclusively on pathologizing Walt, excavating his vanity, cruelty, and neuroses rather than telling a story about what he actually did in his life.
Co-directors Genevieve De Mahy and Matthew Shea’s minimal staging, consisting of a table and some scripts, keeps the focus on the dialogue and performances, of which Diem’s excitable, misanthropic showman Walt is particularly convincing.
“How come you never name any of your sons after me?” Walt abruptly asks his daughter. “What’s up with that?”
Her reply is the emotional peak of the show, the only moment where truth is ever spoken to the irascible Walt, who is accustomed to the absolute subordination of his employees and family. She says that she could never name her son Walt, because the resentment she feels toward him would reproduce itself, and the son would know he was loved less for bearing relation to his cursed grandfather.
“I’ve seen how you fire people,” she tells him.
“The Death of Walt Disney” is about death only in the sense that all of life is leading toward death. Walt, like so many egomaniacs, is singularly driven (perhaps by the very fact of death) to amass power so great that physical obliteration cannot erase his footprint. And it’s about death because, well—and this is only a spoiler because Hnath’s version of Walt earnestly pursues cryogenically freezing his body (Disney didn’t freeze himself in real life, we know because he was cremated, nor is there any evidence that he pursued it, but hell, maybe he still wanted to)—he dies at the end.
In his last moments, a sputtering and half-frozen Walt Disney imagines his family’s grief at his own death. “Close up on daughter,” he announces. “She cries. Ron Cries. Everyone cries.” The company will collapse too, he gleefully predicts (proof of his own inimitable leadership).
“The whole world has stopped and is waiting for me to return,” he says, “to defrost and show them all the way.”
“The Death of Walt Disney” continues through Feb. 25 at Single Carrot Theatre.