Audiences love obsessives. Set a character with a crazy, unquenchable hunger center stage and they eat it up, whether the character’s hunger is for money, love, fame, or anything else. The public can often develop an unquenchable appetite of its own for seeing the mania in action, as when Shakespeare’s kings fixate on power or piety, Mamet’s crooks on bringing off the big deal. Obsession’s the name of the game.
Since all artists, playwrights included, are at least partly obsessive themselves, writing such roles means developing a sense of trickery. You can’t simply put your own fixation onstage and let it rant uninterrupted, so a cagey playwright finds ways to hedge his obsessions. Lucas Hnath, in his new play with the triple-barreled title A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (Soho Rep), has erected three rings of distancing irony around his fascination with his subject, himself one of entertainment history’s great obsessives.
First comes Hnath’s notion of “a public reading:” The format—a nearly bare stage, a table and chairs, actors with scripts in front of them—may resemble a reading, but Sarah Benson stages it as elaborately as any full production, with complex blocking, constantly shifting lights, and a flood of music cues. Inside this lies the pretense that this piece manifestly written for the stage offers “an unproduced screenplay.” Hnath seizes that setup to build interruptions into his dialogue, using screenwriters’ terminology to cut emotions short, and also for its own incantatory effect. The verbalized camera directions (“Hold on Walt’s face”) create a second train of thought running contrapuntally to the first, an imaginary movie whose unseen shots crisscross the life of a celebrated moviemaker.
That moviemaker had a control-freak’s fixation on success and absolute orderliness. The Disney who radiated a tenderhearted affection for kids and the pleasures of family was, behind the scenes, ruthless in business, fetishistic about the tidiness of the imaginary worlds he created, and, one gathers, unempathetic to the woes of either his studio “family” or the one at home. The overpowering effect his creations have had on America’s—and the world’s—sensibility has brought with it baneful shadows, noted by countless thinkers. (Stravinsky on Disney’s visual accompaniment for The Rite of Spring in Fantasia: “It is no use to criticize an unresisting imbecility.”)
Hnath’s final jape is to have Disney assert that he wrote this work himself. This is doubly funny, since Hnath not only touches all the familiar bases on Disney’s darker side, but expends a fair amount of time imagining his death, not omitting his supposed decapitation for cryogenic purposes. Not that having his head put in the freezer stops Hnath’s Disney (Larry Pine) from narrating the silent ending of the “screenplay.” Like the real Disney, this one’s thorough.
Focusing on what he imagines of Disney’s contorted family relationships, Hnath neither explores the sources of Disney’s mania nor documents its unhealthy growth from Silly Symphonies to controlled environments. Instead, his play, a rapid-paced, word-packed 75 minutes in which Pine does nearly all the talking, supplies the textual equivalent of a Tomorrowland ride, a bullet-train trip through the word salad in Disney’s brain as he persecutes, badgers, and mocks his more conventionally businesslike brother Roy (Frank Wood), bullies his doubt-ridden daughter (Amanda Quaid) to name a child after him, and cajoles her dumbly sincere husband (Brian Sgambati) into doing his dirty work for him.
Never deep or revelatory, the play offers exactly the exhilaration such a ride should produce. Benson’s sensitive production varies the manic verbal spew with stretches of dark quietude, during which Mimi Lien’s rigid set reveals unexpected odd corners and Matt Frey’s lights dim to tiny pools that glimmer in the blackness. Quaid and Sgambati handle their roles with precision, while Pine and Wood make a spectacular team. Wood’s laconic deadpan, immaculately timed, gives Pine a perfect counterfoil as the latter hurtles through his role like a virtuoso soloist, his effusions and self-interruptions always precisely on pitch.
Tennessee Williams, as flamboyant and unbusinesslike about his obsessions as Disney was monolithically earnest about his, adored Chekhov above all the predecessor playwrights who had inspired him. In 1980, in the last disjointed phase of his erratic life and career, Williams finally got the chance to work on adapting The Sea Gull, his favorite among Chekhov’s four masterpieces. That adaptation, The Notebook of Trigorin, was produced in Vancouver that fall and extensively reworked afterward; his final draft received a posthumous production in Cincinnati in 1996. A staging by The Attic Theater at The Flea marks its New York premiere.
The results are curious. Williams tries neither to update Chekhov nor to infuse the Chekhovian atmosphere with his own sensibility. Instead, he leaves many areas of the texts untouched, while expanding or swathing over those that do catch his interest with huge brushstrokes of his own extravagance. The effect, alternately mutilating and intensifying the original, is like turning an action painter loose on a Degas. Tropical colors spring up out of nowhere, making rainbow-hued hay of Chekhov’s intentions. Dorn, usually viewed sympathetically, becomes a Mephistophelean cynic who torments everybody while chasing every young girl in sight. Trigorin, the preoccupied writer who surrenders to Arkadina’s and then Nina’s need for him, is here a bisexual to whom boys and girls offer equal temptations, while Arkadina takes on the shriller tones of Mrs. Flora Goforth and other wealthy, demanding dowagers in late Williams plays.
Laura Braza’s uneven production adds further tilts to the work’s seesawing tone. While Will Sarratt’s Constantine and Michael Schantz’s Trigorin understate, often effectively, Meredith Forlenza’s Nina starts charmingly but then pushes ever harder, with diminishing results, and Charise Greene’s Arkadina alternates one shrewish and one soft note, neither convincingly. The rest produce similar discordances, and one can’t help blaming Williams: The cultural clash into which his misapplied passion has turned the script finds its inevitable echo in the acting.