Manbites Dog Theater opened its 30th season (!) last night with a strange, compelling little play with a big long title: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, by Lucas Hnath. Got that? Hereafter to be referred to as Walt. The play was first produced at Soho Rep in 2013; at Manbites, it is a co-production with StreetSigns, and is directed by Joseph Megel.
It is not beside the point that Hnath, whose age does not seem to be anywhere on the internet, but I guessitmate to be 30ish, grew up in Orlando, Florida. There’s no doubt that would make for a different view of Walt Disney than that of a child who grew up conflating Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, and who looked forward all week to “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights. I suspect that Hnath’s is an accurate portrayal of the man who Disneyfied America: In Hnath’s play, Walt Disney is not a benign character.
Instead, he’s a casually cruel narcissist, or perhaps more accurately, a megalomaniac. The play’s characters are Walt, his brother Roy, Walt’s daughter (unnamed) and her husband Ron, and they are played here by a tight foursome of some of the Triangle’s strong actors, led by Derrick Ivey. Director Joseph Megel, in his inimitable way, coaxes maximum human feeling out of the cerebral script–and quite a few unexpected laughs.
As its title indicates, Walt‘s device is to cloak itself as a reading of a screenplay: everyone flips through pages in big black notebooks, and the shot directions form part of each speech, many of which are chopped sentence fragments. Although Hnath uses the characters to make larger points about families, personal power, imagination and mad ambition, legalized theft, the inorganic making of sanitized pretend-places, the immortality of ideas and the inescapability of death even for the “most important” people, Megel disallows caricaturization. Never are his characters mere signifiers for the playwright’s abundant ideas.
Megel has many fine qualities as a director–pacing, timimg, tone, choice of material and actors–but it is his insistence on the humanity of all the figures on the boards that is most important to the power of his work. Like Manbites’ artistic director Jeff Storer, Megel has a heart big enough to encompass the realness of all sorts of people–while turning them inside out and revealing their pitiful flaws and awful fears, along with their strengths and glories.
Derrick Ivey continues to surpass himself. He exudes charisma, even as his Walt reveals the nastiness behind the public persona, and he contrives to look just like Disney. Elisabeth Lewis Corley, despite being undeniably female, gives an affecting performance as Roy Disney, Walt’s bitterly loyal make-it-happen man and kicking post. The excellent Lakeisha Coffey is under-utilized here, but sizzles in her key speech, and David Berberian is wonderful as her sweet but dumb husband. Victoria Ralston reinforced their characters with telling costuming. The excellent set by Sonya Leigh Drum is augmented by Joseph Amodei’s video and sound design, and Andrew Parks’ lighting.
Walt is another don’t-miss-this production from Manbites–and a well-timed cautionary tale about a forceful man with outsized ambitions and a bottomless well of self-regard.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs through October 1, 2016, at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. Tickets here.