Lucas Hnath, one of the most innovative American playwrights working today, doesn’t do stage biopics. Yet from early on in his career, his plays have revolved around famous figures.
The list of illustrious personages includes Isaac Newton (“Isaac’s Eye”), Hillary and Bill Clinton (“Hillary and Clinton”), and Anna Nicole Smith (in the short audio drama “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith”). In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” his best-known work, he boldly picks up the tale of Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s landmark drama “A Doll’s House.”
Hnath even wrote a documentary play about his own mother, though no one would confuse “Dana H.” with a traditional memoir. His method, which leaves a visible gap between actor and role, is more Brechtian. Rather than assemble the biographical parts into a dramatic whole, he deconstructs the way life stories are usually packaged. Hnath, a dramaturgical dandy, fashions a playwriting style that never lets us lose sight of the artistic lens.
At the center of “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” Hnath’s 2013 playing receiving its West Coast premiere in a Working Barn Productions presentation at the Odyssey Theatre, is the genius behind Mickey Mouse and Disneyland. The conceit is that we’re at a reading of a screenplay about Walt Disney written by Walt Disney himself.
Set around a conference table, the play offers a portrait not of an avuncular artist whose childlike imagination took over the world but of a megalomaniac who cannot brook dissent. The tone is jauntily damning. Embedded in an experimental comedy is the tale of a tragic overreacher, a mortal who has come to assume a godlike dominion over the rest of the planet.
Hnath’s Walt (Kevin Ashworth) is in a race against death. The nagging backache for which he pops colorful pills from a jar on his desk turns out to be something far more nefarious.
At his side is his brother Roy (Thomas Piper), who wears a bandage on his forehead as a symbol perhaps of his browbeaten fraternal identity. He’s responsible for executing Walt’s fanciful visions. But, he’s charged with reining in Walt’s runaway ambition — and bearing the brunt of despotism.
No longer satisfied with creating entertainment, Walt is determined to leave his imprint on reality itself. Instead of building another theme park, he wants to create his own futuristic city, a new version of Plato’s Republic in which he’s the founding Philosopher King.
Also at the table are Walt’s daughter (Brittney Bertier) and son-in-law (Cory Washington), both of whom sit for long stretches in silence. The son-in-law wants to play a more active role in the business, while the daughter is careful to keep her distance from her father. She refuses to name one of her children after him because the associations for her are too painful.
Hnath is exploring the disconnect between image and reality. Walt’s art delights children, but the artist himself casts a pall on his family. Commerce, which sets up a battle for control, darkens creativity. The myth that Disney had himself frozen so that his brain could eventually be reanimated is dusted off to illustrate these themes despite the legend being thoroughly debunked. (Disney’s body was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.)
“A Public Reading” isn’t the place to learn all about Walt Disney. Hnath is more interested in the nature of biographical telling than in the tale itself. Which version of a life will ultimately prevail? The question is inseparable from art.
The production, directed by Peter Richards with a dexterous hand, meticulously realizes Hnath’s unorthodox style. The language, rhythmic and purposefully repetitive, is delivered as though it was a score by Philip Glass.
The scenic design by David Offner establishes the corporate setting. Nick Santiago’s projections provide a discreet background of whimsy. The mix of banality and magic is on the money.
The actors maintain the premise that we are watching a reading of a screenplay. Scripts are held as lines are volleyed. Realism isn’t the point, but reality nonetheless breaks through.
Ashworth, sporting Walt’s signature mustache, doesn’t traffic in impersonation. But he’s completely conniving in the play’s title role. He storms, he belittles, he schemes. Inevitably, he discovers he’s human. The performance is note-perfect.
Piper’s Roy, eloquent when silent, registers the effect of being the subordinate brother who’s responsible to the outside world. As the daughter, Bertier conveys hurt with a straight face. Washington’s Ron adopts an agreeable mask while advancing his own agenda.
As strange as it is intriguing, “A Public Reading” asks theatergoers to listen in a different way. “A Public Reading” offers the sound of a bracingly original dramatist discovering his own inimitable voice.
‘A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney’
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., LA
When: 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays; ends May1
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minute