Soho Rep is the most thrilling theater in New York currently because they manage to consistently transform their cozy Walker Street space into the universe of each play they produce, blurring the line between seats and sets. Uncle Vanya brought us into an austerely cozy living room while The Ugly One perched us on the starkly raked seats of a medical observatory. This time, we walk up a steep flight of stairs illuminated by a soft florescent light to descend into a conference hall lined with dark wood panels. The seats, pushed closely together are reminiscent of those found in faceless convention halls.
All but one of the actors soon begin to take their seats at a long wooden table as the audience files into the theater. They sit unassumingly as we skim through our programs then peer back into their eyes for any clues of what's to come. Anticipation reaches a boil as the lone absentee, Larry Pine (Walt Disney), saunters onto the stage and into his seat. He's not only the star and narrator of Lucas Hnath's imaginative one act, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney(running through June 9th), but he also controls all the light and sound cues, highlighting his godlike presence.
Pine brings a solid balance of mysticism and commanding power to the role as Walt strives to build the perfect city at all costs before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Hnath's dialogue highlights the fine line between dreamer and dictator as Walt launches into his vision with his brother, Roy (Frank Wood), interjecting at key moments:
Walt: want to make a city like I've made a theme park, an actual city, a place where people live and sleep and work and eat and
Roy: could be
Walt: best thing I've ever done
Walt: with it's own government, government that I've invented.
Most of Hnath's dialogue is lowercase and fragmented, suggesting action but stopping just short of the follow through. It has the feeling of a dream play and is then jolted into harsh focus by arguments between Walt and his daughter (Amanda Quaid), who resists her father's desire to shape her life like his perfectly manicured amusement park. It is then a wicked irony that her husband (Brian Sgambati) is all too eager to fill his father-in-law's shoes.
Under Sarah Benson's incisive direction, the cast works as a true ensemble, seamlessly playing off each other's beats and filling in the gaps left by Hnath's incomplete sentences that seem to be crafted to provoke wonder and thought much like staring into a galaxy of stars. Hnath's portrait of Walt often feels more like an unfinished sketch, but that's not as disappointing as it seems. While it stunts some of the show's dramatic potential, it also takes our focus away from Walt Disney the icon and allows us to see a bit of ourselves in him.