Because there aren’t many “household names” in this season of shows, Flowertown Underground will be providing short primers on Ghost Quartet, A Public Reading of the Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, and Wit, introducing you to their playwrights and their themes. Our second installment goes into the weird and wonderful world of Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of the Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney (Public Reading).
Who is Lucas Hnath?
Lucas Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) is a playwright from Orlando, Florida. He is best known in the theater world for his plays A Doll’s House, Part 2, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best play, and The Christians, which, along with another play, Red Speedo, won him the 2016 Obie Award for excellence in playwriting.
Mr. Hnath has been a resident playwright with New Dramatists since 2011, and since then, he’s premiered a new work about once a year. He also teaches at New York University, and holds a BFA and MFA in creative writing from the Tisch School of the (Lucas Hnath for Vogue Magazine) Arts. His newest play, The Thin Place, is set to premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in December.
Fittingly enough, Hnath says he was inspired to pursue a career in the arts at least in part because he grew up near Disney World. Speaking with Playwrights Horizons, he said, “I think it came in part from growing up in Orlando so close to Disney World, which is an incredibly theatrical place. In a lot of ways my interest in theater and in art started there. I really wanted to make Disney rides when I was a kid.”
What is Public Reading?
Public Reading (full name: A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney) is Hnath’s second professionally-produced work. It played at the Soho Rep in 2013, and featured Larry Pine as Walt, Amanda Quaid as Daughter, Brian Sgambati as Ron Miller, and Frank Wood as Roy.
What is Public Reading about?
In a rare Q&A with Soho Rep before the play’s premiere, Hnath explained the meaning of the play like so:
"I tend to write plays about people who are trying to do something that is impossible or nearly impossible. I’m interested in people who are trying to accomplish things that very few people will ever accomplish: to become leader of the free world or go to space or, in the case of Walt, build a perfect city. Huge ambition brings with it aspects of wonder, high stakes, and danger. But even more interesting than that, when you combine enormous ambitions with the small conflicts we experience everyday, the ordinary becomes illuminated."
Public Reading is, essentially, about Walt’s effort to define his legacy, or rather, what he thinks his legacy should be. As Hnath explains elsewhere in the Q&A, he says that the staged reading conceit of the show, something that was originally borne out of a desire to make a play that could be workshopped without needing memorization, took on a greater significance as he further developed the play. “When you see Walt reading from the script, cutting, editing the story; that’s a dramatic image of man who’s struggling to control his legacy,” Hnath said.
This is a story about legacy, but it’s also at least a little bit about fame and ego, and how those things can impact the people you’re closest to. In the show, Walt’s relationship with his brother Roy starts strained and only gets worse; his relationship with Daughter doesn’t even have that middling start, as he threatens to write her out of his will if she doesn’t name her son after him, then manipulates her husband’s need for a father figure to ensure that it will happen regardless. This is a deliberate reinterpretation of Disney, one that lets Hnath explore that idea of what happens when the ambitions of this powerful man collide with the realities of his family - and his mortality.
That isn’t to say the play is a drag, because it isn’t, not entirely. There’s a lot of deliciously dark humor in Hnath’s script, particularly as it relates to a certain urban legend about lemmings. But underneath the high concept and abnormal presentation, Public Reading is a cerebral show with a beating heart lying just beneath the surface, a show that asks what we leave behind and doesn’t flinch from the ugly answers.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney runs February 21st-February 29th in the Back Alley Studio. [Auditions take place December 15th and 16th at 7:00 PM.]