The name Walt Disney conjures up images of fairies and happy endings and “It’s a Small World” on an endless loop.
But that’s not the Walt Disney we get in Lucas Hnath’s dark and delicious “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” The Scoundrel & Scamp’s current offering.
Instead, we get a Disney who is a megalomaniac, cruel, driven and obsessed with immortality and his legacy.
This screenplay within a play opens with “I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”
Screenplay directions, such as “cut to” and “fade out” are read by Disney and are used as weapons to cut off the other characters he has allowed to make an appearance in his story: His daughter, her jock husband, and his poor, beaten-down brother, Roy.
Walt, a drinker, smoker and pill popper, is dying. But before he goes, he is determined to build a Utopian city in Florida that will cement his place in history. His drive to live on long after his death has taken a toll on his life: Relationships and meaning have escaped him.
The Scoundrel & Scamp’s 30-seat studio in the historic Y is the ideal space for this piece. The set consists of four chairs and a table, where the cast sits with open scripts in front of them. The audience is almost nose-to-nose with the actors. That intimacy sucks us quickly into the world Hnath has created. There’s little movement — other than a moment when Disney rises to dispose of a bloody handkerchief (his lung cancer quickly progresses over the course of the 70-minute play), the players are all in their seats, facing the audience, only rarely facing each other.
Hnath’s often-funny script has a staccato rhythm and a poetic nature.
And this cast, directed with fluidity and intelligence by Bryan Rafael Falcón, brought it to mesmerizing life.
Bill Epstein took on the role of Disney, and he embraced the language and the cold, emotionless character. It is the best work we’ve seen him do.
Tony Caprile’s Roy, Disney’s brother and the one who ran the business side of the fantasy kingdom, is defeated and passive. It was hard not to ache for the character.
Leah Taylor as Roy’s angry daughter and Ben Branch as her dim-witted husband had smaller roles but they made the most of them, and gave us a fuller picture of the playwright’s vision of Disney.
There’s just enough of what we think is true in this play to make one wonder: Disney had lung cancer. When he died he was in the process of building his Utopian city; after his death, his brother Roy redirected the project, which became Epcot Center in Orlando. His son-in-law became the head of the company. And there were long rumors that Disney had ordered his body be frozen when he died.
But the play is fictionalized (although there was a 2011 story reporting his head was stolen from a cryogenics lab; that’s what we call fake news — he was cremated and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park).
Yet this fictionalized version offers a lot more meat than that Small World ride. And it is a whole lot more entertaining.