A Public Reading Is a Startling Homage to Walt Disney’s Ego

Storme Sundeberg as the daughter and Matt Zimmerer as Walt Disney.
Storme Sundeberg as the daughter and Matt Zimmerer as Walt Disney. Christopher Haines
There’s something chilling about Matt Zimmerer’s performance in iTheatre Collaborative’s superb A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. It may be Zimmerer’s striking physical and aural resemblance to Mr. Disney in this brisk one-act, now playing at the Herberger. Or perhaps it’s watching him enact playwright Lucas Hnath’s sneaky subversion of Mr. Disney that’s so unsettling. Either way, Zimmerer’s is a crisp, thoughtful impersonation of a man we probably thought we knew something about. We were apparently mistaken.

This Walt Disney wants to reshape the world in his likeness — and the world isn’t cooperating. His nonstop smoking, pill-popping, and hooch-swilling are the vices of a man written by Edward Albee; his desire to abandon “fairies and fairy stories” to create the perfect city is an Orwellian appeal. He rages and connives and demands and quite literally spits blood — he’s dying of lung cancer — like a Shakespearean scoundrel. On the page and in performance, this is a dazzling and unrepentant Uncle Walt.

The play’s title is also its unapologetic conceit. This reading of a screenplay by and about Mr. Disney takes place on Christopher Haines’ austere and practical set, its padded conference room chairs and plastic folding tables suggesting a boardroom where we, the audience, might be investors considering a film pitch. If there’s a problem with A Public Reading, it’s that Disney would never have allowed a movie to be made that revealed his darker side, let alone written it himself. Its blackest moments belong to a deathbed confession.

Hnath drags out some juicy Walt legends: that old bit about Disney’s head being cryogenically preserved, a story long ago discredited, and the one about lemmings being hurled from a cliff top during a nature documentary shoot. But Hnath is less interested in setting the record straight than in showing us what happens when one aspires to godliness.

iTheatre co-founder Haines’ efficient direction creates the illusion of action from four players who are mostly sitting stock still. He gives the secondary characters — Storme Sundeberg and Nick Buchanan play Walt’s daughter and son-in-law — some sharp definition, perhaps more than they’re given on the page.

Jeffrey Middleton, one of the very best things about a recent Compass Players production of The Best Man, gives another stirring performance as Walt’s beleaguered brother Roy. This time, rather than stomping and braying as he did in the Gore Vidal play, Middleton conveys rage, pain, even humor without ever rising from his chair. With just his voice and his eyes, seated at a table “reading” his life’s sorrows from the pages of his brother’s apocryphal screenplay, Middleton makes Roy pitiable but never pathetic. I’ll eat my favorite hat if this guy doesn’t get whatever awards they’re giving out these days for performances like this one.

I admit I grew weary of Hnath’s staccato, overlapping dialogue; its Mametesque, repetitive rhythms and Walt’s endless directive to “cut to!” the next scene or close up. But from a quagmire of half-finished sentences, Hnath has created a startling homage to pathology and the dangers of egoism — one that deserves 90 minutes of your time.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney continues through March 10 on the Kax Stage at the Herberger Theatre Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-252-8497 or visit iTheatre's website.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela