By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It seems so easy to get a handle on A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, the new play by Lucas Hnath that's now at Soho Rep.
After all, the story is right there in the title: A group of actors gather to read a screenplay that Walt Disney supposedly wrote about his life. When we enter the theatre, we see an anonymous lecture hall/rehearsal space, with cast members sitting behind tables while they drink their water and graze on bowls of snacks. Eventually, Walt (Larry Pine) enters, and he sits down to play himself---the star of his own movie. As he reads through scenes about Disneyworld and nature documentaries, it seems like we're getting a clever little comedy about an irascible Hollywood legend.
Then everything breaks apart. Walt keeps cutting scenes that make him angry, for instance, but why is he upset about a movie he wrote himself? And why is the actress playing his daughter sulking away to a corner? Isn't she just playing a character? Or is she somehow turning into Walt's child?
And what about the handkerchiefs? Walt has several coughing fits that interrupt the story, and almost every time he pulls a handkerchief away from his mouth, it's covered with blood. Things were supposed to be light and fun, but now, they're stained bright red.
For Hnath, this intrusion is vital to the show. "There's the visible world and the invisible world in this play, and then there are moments when there's a crossover," he says. "When there's that crossover, there's a feeling of a séance. The spirit is summoned very briefly. You get a glimpse of something, and it goes away. I find those moments very uncanny and engaging."
Those moments also suggest that Walt Disney doesn't have total control, but as the script makes clear, he wants to be in charge. Blending historical facts and popular myths about the creator of the Magic Kingdom, Hnath imagines him as a man who craves the power to make everything perfect. If the leaves fall off a tree, then he'll just glue on new ones made of vinyl.
"But what happens when you continually misrepresent the world, reconstruct it into an image you'd prefer?" Hnath asks. "A partial answer to that question, or maybe a partial thesis to the play, is that the results are pretty lonely. You risk being out of synch with the world."
That tension is even present in the play's premise. It matters, for instance, that Walt is playing Walt in a screenplay he wrote himself. He's manipulating the story on the page and on the stage. But when he starts losing control---when the actors misbehave and when his blood gets on the handkerchief---we have to wonder how much he actually governed in the first place. "When you try to control and control and control, try to fit things into a shape, the thing will unspool," says Hnath. "That's inevitable. And the eruption of handkerchiefs gets at that."
It's ironic that Hnath has written a play about a man who wants to master the world. Playwrights, after all, create worlds for a living. They decide everything from what the characters say to how the light is supposed to look. Asked about that connection, Hnath says, "I'm interested in that [theme] because I am such a control freak. It's my own fear, I think, about what's going to happen to me.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor