Playwright Lucas Hnath can’t help but to be clever. After all, he’s considered something of a modern icon, having won a number of massive awards in the five years since his first work debuted at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
So it comes as no surprise that his 2013 play, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” is as esoteric as it is entertaining (as if its title didn’t give that away at the outset). The play opens as meta-drama, with the in-character Walt Disney ushering his audience in to see “his play”. In this edition, we’re at Single Carrot Theatre in Remington, sitting in movie theater seats and staring at the cast, which is seated at a stainless steel table, each with a script at their place.
The ‘play’ (and I speak here of the play Disney has allegedly written, not the actual production), as it starts, is little more than a series of staccato, incomplete dialogue, moving us quickly through first Disney’s doomed-to-be-damning decision: faking the suicide of a group of lemmings for his Oscar winner-to-be, “White Wilderness.” From there, the sentences lengthen as Disney devolves: manipulating his family members, scamming the public, planning an impossible city and dreading/denying his own mortality.
Single Carrot’s Paul Diem is pitch-perfect in the role, easily sliding from debonair to deranged and back again. For all intents, his character is a monster, but something in Diem’s manic take engenders sympathy when Walt finally meets his icy end (I should note, of course, that the myth of Disney’s cryogenic death has been widely debunked, a fact Hnath must have known but chose to ignore for the sake of his point). The other major character, Roy Disney (Walt’s brother), is played masterfully by Mohammad R. Suaidi with a sort of defiant deference.
I don’t much envy Meghan Stanton and Eric Poch, portrayers of Walt’s daughter and her husband, Ron; for most of the play, they sit silently at the table to which they’re handcuffed (oh yeah, did I mention everyone is handcuffed to the table except for Walt)–Poch, blank-faced to reflect the intellectual ineptitude of Ron, and Stanton, purse-lipped and eye-rolling to reflect her character’s frustration with her father.
By the play’s end (which comes fairly quickly–the production is only about 65 minutes long) the audience is left to their own devices to parse what they’ve seen, both for literal truths–you’re bound to Google some things after you’ve left the theater–and emotional ones. The takeaway isn’t as clear as it is in, say, The Christians, another of Hnath’s works recently produced in Baltimore. There’s the obvious cost of immortality, sure, and the reality of the monstrous world behind a beautiful facade–but, too, the strange form to consider, Hnath’s choice to darken Disney beyond his already-dubious nature. If the playwright truly “sets out to frustrate,” as he’s said of some of his other works, he succeeds.
I write mainly of the work itself and not of the acting because of the cast’s seamless delivery. Hnath’s words are so alive simply because there is no distraction of misdelivery or over-acting, and because Diem and co. bring them to life seemingly in the exact manner they were intended (though, in reviews I’ve read of the play’s debut, other actors have all but kept emotion out of the work). It’s Single Carrot the best I’ve seen them, stripped-down and dead-on and delightful.
The Death of Walt Disney runs from Feb. 2-25 at Single Carrot Theatre. Tickets here.