We gave it a B+
One thing is certain: Lucas Hnath’s new play won’t be performed on Orlando’s Main Street USA anytime soon. A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, running through May 26 at Off Broadway’s Soho Rep, depicts the late entertainment impresario as magic mountains away from the grandfatherly figure many of us saw introducing Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights during our childhood.
As played by Larry Pine with smug self-possession, Disney is a megalomaniac with mouse ears. He’s a corner-cutting, anti-union friend of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, willing to manipulate even his own family to achieve his often cockeyed goals. He repeatedly upbraids his brother and business partner, Roy (Frank Wood, a deadpan delight), and threatens to cut off his daughter (a solid Amanda Quaid) unless she names her next son Walt.
Hnath even digs up some urban legends in his very loosely researched portrait: His Walt responds to the increasing signs of his failing health (he keeps coughing up blood) with plans to cryogenically preserve his brain for some distant, disease-free future. He’s such a control freak, in fact, that not only has he written a screenplay about his final days but he insists on reading the editing cues aloud. This allows the cast to ”jump cut” between bits of dialogue for greater comedic payoff.
Set designer Mimi Lien has cleverly recast the Soho Rep’s black-box space as a glorified boardroom, complete with wood panelling, recessed lighting, and wall-to-wall red carpeting. And for much of the 75-minute intermission-less show, the cast (which also includes Brian Sgambati as Walt’s ex-jock dolt of a son-in-law) remains seated at high-backed black leather swivel chairs behind a wooden table, flipping through the pages of Disney’s supposed script. Director Sarah Benson’s staging may be intentionally lo-fi, but her actors deliver their lines at an admirably breakneck pace. In its darkly comic dissection of an all-American icon, this Public Reading is no Mickey Mouse production. B+