by Marc Wheeler on April 6, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


When I saw Lucas Hnath’s name attached to A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney – a boldly-titled play now getting its West Coast Premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles – I jumped at the chance to review it. The playwright’s been on my radar ever since I saw his audacious sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, A Doll’s House. The appropriately-titled A Doll’s House, Part 2 is steeped in sharp-witted intellectualism. A play of debate and ideas, it had my mind reeling when I saw its West Coast Premiere in 2017. It came as no surprise to me, then, that the simultaneously-running New York production was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Two years later, I saw Hnath’s The Christians, a brilliant “crisis of faith”-themed play set in a megachurch, and his bizarrely provocative Dana H., a deeply personal story involving his own mother. Given my appreciation for Hnath’s work, I was primed for what sounded like a tongue-in-cheek take on a beloved American icon, Walt Disney. And boy-oh-boy, it did not go well.

This “public reading” is excruciating. Imagine, if you will, bony fingers poke-poke-poking your ribs, and forehead, and spleen – indeed, all over your body – for 75 minutes straight. This play is the theatrical equivalent of that. It’s eternal – like Chinese water torture or death by papercuts. It took all my strength not to find the nearest exit. I found out later that my guest – realizing after the play’s first scene that it wasn’t going to get any better – went into a deep meditation until curtain call.

Kevin Ashworth and Thomas Piper

Hnath’s bold, if not sadistic, experiment in storytelling had its World Premiere in 2013 at Soho Repertory Theatre – an Off-Broadway company with a penchant for contemporary, avant-garde work. A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is about what it says: a public reading – of an unproduced screenplay – about the death of Walt Disney. The work imagines a fictionalized version of Disney writing a self-absorbed screenplay about his own life, death, and legacy. The play we see is a painful reading of this awful work presented to us – the “public” – by Walt himself and three other readers sitting at a large table in front of simple black curtains (set design by David Offner). Meanwhile, images by projectionist Nick Santiago are projected onto a whiteboard and the theater’s back wall, showcasing each scene’s themes.

The screenplay explores a range of topics, from Walt’s largely unknown nature documentaries, to vague descriptions of him flying on private jets to attend generic, but important, business meetings. Also thrown in are striking Disney employees, unhealthy family relations, and Walt’s vision for Disney-owned cities. All of this coincides with Walt’s escalating illness that culminates, as the title suggests, in his death and future legacy.

Kevin Ashworth, Brittney Bertier, Thomas Piper and Cory Washington

According to director Peter Richards, Hnath describes some of his work as “stereoscopic theatricality.” Basically, it’s what results when we combine our impression of a celebrity with his fictional portrayal of them. The tension created by these two images helps provide commentary on our fractured world. Other figures Hnath has addressed in his plays include Hillary Clinton, Isaac Newton, and Anna Nicole Smith. This might be interesting, perhaps, if our sanity wasn’t drained in the process. In this particular play, what do audiences really gain from sitting through this reconceptualization of Walt Disney? It’s cliché to posit that celebrities are braggadocious and full of themselves. Or that beneath their happy exteriors lie darker interiors. None of this brings anything new to the table. Nor does the choice to make Walt Disney a bad screenwriter. Films, like plays, are meant to be seen in their full glory, not simply read. It’s hard to make staged readings interesting. It’s almost impossible when the script is mind-numbing and the reading’s like nails to a chalkboard. Why are we doing this?

Brittney Bertier, Cory Washington, Thomas Piper and Kevin Ashworth

Assuming Hnath isn’t actually a sadist but someone who sincerely hoped this hybrid tale of fact and fiction would make people laugh, the reality is: it just doesn’t work. And that’s not the fault of the director or actors. At best, this is a Saturday Night Live sketch that’s stretched far too long. Worse, we never get to escape from – nor does anyone comment on – the insanity we’re all witnessing. We’re an audience held captive, without even an intermission in which to quietly sneak away, while a madman reads to us his crappy screenplay in its entirety. No reader (or even a sane, relatable outside character) breaks the tension to show us that Hnath feels our pain. On the contrary, the readers simply endure it – like we do, lest we be “rude” and leave in the middle of Walt’s show. Our job as the audience, it seems, is to humor Mr. Disney. But sweet jiminy cricket! – 75 minutes is a long, long time to humor a self-absorbed idiot.

Brittney Bertier, Cory Washington, Thomas Piper

Alas, it gets worse. The dialogue. I don’t know if a complete thought ever gets made. Sentences are constantly interrupted by random stage directions or another character’s predictive text. It’s incessant. For example, a character – and by that I mean: mostly Walt – only gets three or four words out before another character interrupts and finishes his sentence, or we hear Walt say “cut to” this or “cut to” that between long drags of his cigarette or chasing down pills with vodka (props to Jenine MacDonald’s Disney-font insignia on the pill bottle). The play consists of rapid-fire dialogue that never lets up or gives the audience a chance to absorb it and simply … breathe. It’s a brutal thing for a playwright to do to his audiences.All of this said, it’s only fair I give credit where it’s due. As the talentless screenwriter and Man of the Hour himself, Kevin Ashworth earns every cent of his Actors Equity paycheck in his portrayal of Walt Disney. With self-assured grace and meticulousness, he plays the foul-mouth narcissist’s every delusion of grandeur. It’s clear Walt knows every line, word, and punctuation mark in his beloved screenplay. I have no doubt he can recite it backwards and forwards. All smiles – savoring every moment at our expense – Ashworth’s Walt is in love with himself, his achievements, and his script. He wants nothing more than for all of us to marinate in his brilliance and creative juices. Meanwhile, the rest of the actors – Brittney Bertier (Walt’s Daughter), Thomas Piper (Walt’s brother), and Cory Washington (Walt’s despised son-in-law) – all give professional line readings, as imposed by Walt (and Hnath). Little, if no, acting is required – and they deliver solidly.

Kevin Ashworth as Walt Disney

If only this play were so-bad-it’s-hilarious like the play-within-a-play in Christopher Guest’s film Waiting for Guffman or Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler” in the hit musical The Producers. But no, this is simply dull and grating with pelting, lyrically repetitive dialogue. Kid you not, I counted five people looking at their watches – that’s more than I heard laughing. The first wrist-glance clocked in at ten minutes. (Not a good sign, folks!) This all said, if given the chance to see another of Hnath’s plays, I’d certainly go – albeit with more trepidation – because his other work has been so strong. I’ll chalk up this “Disney experiment” to a bold, but poor, choice from an adventurous, burgeoning playwright trying too hard to be “original” or “different.” Perhaps Hnath didn’t realize early-on that he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel of storytelling to get noticed. Ultimately, if the prolific Hnath had to burn through this piece in order to become what he’s become – all is forgiven. But man-oh-man, this was brutal.

Kevin Ashworth, Brittney Bertier

photos by Jenny Graham

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney
Working Barn Productions
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2
for tickets and dates, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pauline May 11, 2022 at 1:19 pm

Wow – what an interesting and incisive review. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sparing us from an excruciating night at the theater.


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