Lucas Hnath, one of the most inventive American playwrights working today, doesn’t make biopics on stage. However, from the beginning of his career, his plays revolved around famous people.
The list of illustrious people includes Isaac Newton (“Isaac’s Eye”), Hillary and Bill Clinton (“Hillary and Clinton”) and Anna Nicole Smith (in the audio short “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith”). In “A Doll’s House, Part 2″, his most famous work, he boldly takes up the story of Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s seminal drama “A Doll’s House”.
Hnath even wrote a documentary piece about his own mother, though no one would confuse “Dana H.” with a traditional memory. His method, which leaves a visible gap between actor and role, is more Brechtian. Rather than assembling the biographical parts into a dramatic whole, it deconstructs the way life stories are usually presented. Hnath, a dramaturgical dandy, fashions a style of playwriting that never lets us lose sight of the artistic goal.
At the center of “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Script on the Death of Walt Disney,” Hnath’s 2013 play receiving its West Coast premiere in a Working Barn Productions presentation at the Odyssey Theater, is the genius behind Mickey Mouse and Disneyland. The vanity is that we are reading a screenplay about Walt Disney written by Walt Disney himself.
Around a conference table, the room offers the portrait not of an avuncular artist whose childish imagination has conquered the world, but of a megalomaniac who does not tolerate dissent. The tone is downright damning. Embedded in an experimental comedy is the story of an over-the-top tragic, a mortal who has come to assume divine dominion over the rest of the planet.
Hnath’s Walt (Kevin Ashworth) is engaged in a race against death. The persistent back pain for which he pulls colorful pills from a jar on his desk turns out to be something far more nefarious.
Beside him is his brother Roy (Thomas Piper), who wears a headband across his forehead, perhaps a symbol of his intimidated brotherly identity. He is responsible for carrying out Walt’s fanciful visions. But increasingly, he’s tasked with curbing Walt’s runaway ambition — and bearing the brunt of his despotism.
No longer content to create entertainment, Walt is determined to leave his mark 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 is 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 periods in silence. The son-in-law wants to take a more active role in the business, while the daughter is careful to keep her distance from her father. She refuses to give her name to any of her children because the associations for her are too painful.
Hnath explores the disconnect between image and reality. Walt’s art delights children, but the artist himself throws a veil over his family. Commerce, which sets up a battle for control, clouds creativity. The myth that Disney had himself frozen so that his brain could possibly be reanimated is dusted off to illustrate these themes despite the legend being thoroughly debunked. (Disney’s body was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.)
“A Public Reading” is not the place to learn everything about Walt Disney. Hnath is more interested in the nature of the biographical narrative than in the narrative itself. Which version of a life will ultimately win out? The question is inseparable from art.
The production, directed by Peter Richards with a deft hand, meticulously executes Hnath’s unorthodox style. The language, rhythmic and deliberately repetitive, is delivered as if it were a score by Philip Glass.
David Offner’s scenic design establishes the framework for the company. Nick Santiago’s projections provide a low-key fantasy backdrop. The mixture of banality and magic is there.
The actors maintain the postulate that we are witnessing the reading of a script. Scripts are held while lines are flown. Realism is not the point, but reality breaks through nonetheless.
Ashworth, sporting Walt’s signature mustache, isn’t dealing impersonation. But he is completely conniving in the title role of the play. He storms, he belittles, he intrigues. Inevitably, he discovers that he is human. The performance is perfect.
Piper’s Roy, eloquent when silent, records the effect of being the subordinate brother who is accountable to the outside world. As a girl, Bertier conveys hurt with a straight face. Ron from Washington adopts a pleasant mask while advancing his own agenda.
As strange as it is intriguing, “A Public Reading” invites viewers to listen differently. “A Public Reading” offers the sound of a playwright with a lively originality discovering his own inimitable voice.
“A Public Reading of an Unproduced Script on the Death of Walt Disney”
Or: Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., LA
When: 8 p.m. from Friday to Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday; ends May 1
Operating time: 1 hour, 10 minutes