The latest production by Thinking Cap Theatre is all about Disney, but don’t expect singing animals or mermaids or princesses. “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney” is a stark and riveting examination of a different set of Disney values: ego, empire building and the quest for immortality.
Whiting Award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath, who grew up in central Florida, uses dark comedy and a highly stylized structure to mine the depths of a Disney who isn’t exactly a bright-eyed, kid-friendly Uncle Walt. Instead, as imagined by the terrific Peter Galman, he’s a megalomaniacal businessman determined to leave a serious legacy, something more substantive than cartoon mice and ducks (though he’s swaggeringly proud of them, too). He wants to build not another Fantasyland but a real city, a dream that turns out to be more difficult than he imagined.
The play is presented as a screenplay written by Disney and read by actors playing Walt, his daughter, son-in-law and Roy (the real Disney died of lung cancer in 1966). Read mostly around a table in an unremarkable conference room, “A Public Reading” is relevant and engaging despite this unusual construction and abrupt, staccato dialogue full of unfinished thoughts and sentences. You may need a few minutes to get used to its odd rhythms, but Thinking Cap’s gifted cast eases the way into the language, and Hnath’s clever blend of fact and fiction echoes Disney’s great ambition to embellish his own mythology (the hilarious if horrific bit about how the cinematographers faked lemmings “jumping” off a cliff is true; the rumor about Disney having his head cryogenically frozen has, sadly, long been debunked)
The play’s central conflict lies between Disney and his brother Roy (Jim Gibbons, a perfect foil for Galman), who’s sometimes a voice of reason, occasionally an instigator — and too often Walt’s whipping boy. “Being Walt means something,” Walt tells him pointedly. To Walt, being Roy — or anybody else, really — matters a lot less.
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Gretchen Porro, who plays Walt’s daughter (she’s unnamed, a sign of how insignificant she is to her father), has a smaller yet fiery and memorable role, erupting in a startling and passionate fury when Walt demands a namesake (she is on her third son with no plans to use the name “Walter” — for good reason). Alex Alvarez as her ex-athlete husband Ron is eager and affable but not overly bright, an unlikely successor to the massive Disney empire — unless that’s precisely what its founder has in mind.
Directed by Mark Duncan, who co-starred in Thinking Cap’s excellent spring production of “The Realistic Joneses” with Porro, “A Public Reading” is a unique theater experience, fast-paced and intriguing, a brief window into a mind determined to be great — at any cost.
If You Go
What: “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney” by Lucas Hnath
When: Thursday - Oct. 2; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale
Tickets: $35; www.vanguardarts.org