One of America’s most beloved icons gets cut down to human size in Lucas Hnath’s new play, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” which begins at the Soho Rep on April 30.
Having grown up in Orlando in the shadow of Disney World, the 33-year-old playwright would seem to have a special claim on the man whose public profile was as a warm and avuncular visionary and dreamer. Behind the scenes, however, Disney was also known to be a hard-drinking, womanizing, steely businessman given to outbursts against unions, blacks, and Jews.
In a brief scene from the play, Walt and his brother Roy Disney have a less-than-fraternal exchange over a couple of vodkas and a pack of cigarettes. Roy stews impatiently while Walt yammers on about all of his fans and friends, from Albert Einstein and Doris Day to physicist Wernher von Braun and Groucho Marx. Walt adds that “Snow White” was the favorite movie of Alan Turing, the brilliant, code-breaking mathematician of wartime Britain. “When he killed himself, he killed himself by eating a cyanide coated apple because he liked the movie so much,” says a self-satisfied Walt. Hitler, on the other hand, hated Mickey Mouse. “Hitler said Mickey was silly. Said mice were dirty. Said Mickey was a pile of shit. Really. And looked what happened to him.” When Roy tries to bring up a public relations fiasco caused by Walt, his brother retorts icily, “Just fix it!”
Veteran actor Larry Pine will play the legendary figure in the drama, to be directed by Soho Rep’s artistic director Sarah Benson. Hnath is coming off of excellent reviews for another gimlet-eyed look at a legend, Sir Isaac Newton. His drama “Isaac’s Eyes” just completed a run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. And on June 11, there will be a free reading at New Dramatists on 44th Street of his next work, “Red Speedo,” which is described as “a play about men who wear speedos and swim and take drugs so they can swim even faster.”
Hnath’s surreal meditation on Disney – which he has said was inspired by King Lear – seems to be in the same league as “The Perfect American,” the new opera by Philip Glass, which is also about the legendary animator and film producer. The opera, in English, recently had a world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real prior to an engagement in June at the English National Opera in London. With a libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer based on a German novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, the work received mixed reviews, though even the most churlish expressed admiration for the imaginative scope of characters, which included Andy Warhol, an out-of-control animatronic Abraham Lincoln, and a haunting little girl in an owl’s mask and costume.
Image: Walt Disney/Library of Congress