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Walt Disney comes to life in play about his ‘death’

Scott Behrend and Jon Elston’s Road Less Traveled Productions, the risk-taking and forever-edgy acting troupe, is beginning the process of packing up and turning out the lights at its intimate home inside the Theater District’s Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre. Ah, but not yet. Until the curtain comes down for the last time – they’re moving, destination still not announced – some unfinished theatrical business remains.

RLTP’s first show of the new year is a dark, off-Broadway hit of not long ago, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” by avant-garde playwright Lucas Hnath. Katie Mallinson directs Robert Rutland, Gerry Maher, Marisa Caruso and Darryl Hart in this disturbing – playwright Hnath has admitted a fondness for “agitating” his audiences – explosive and argumentative take on the last days of the legendary Walt Disney, the “King Lear of the Magic Kingdom.”

Hnath – pronounced “Nayth” – grew up in Orlando, Fla., not far from Disney World, a witness to the fantasy land’s nightly fireworks. In this “A Public Reading …,” he has created some fireworks of his own, a 75-minute dismembering of Uncle Walt’s quest to be “one of the most important people who ever lived,” the skewering taking place in a Disney boardroom on the days leading up to Walt’s death from runaway lung cancer in 1966.

On one of these days, Disney’s daughter Diane, her husband and ex-jock, Ron Miller – later to be the corporation CEO – and Walt’s brother, Roy, actually the financial brains behind everything magical, join the Scotch-swilling, pill-popping, blood-coughing “kitsch-meister,” as one biographer dubbed Walt. The Chief has written a screenplay about his life, starring himself, and filming is set to begin. Maybe. But first, there are rants to get out of the way, rages against people and things, a string of verbal abuses and well-aimed vitriol at anyone nearby and soliloquies on a variety of topics: the business, expansion, Mickey Mouse, Hitler, the changing art of animation, unionism, loyalty or the lack of it, and his upcoming death – a “slow fade,” he says, “two seconds in real time but an eternity in mind time.” The Disney Dream? More like a Hnath nightmare, these minutes – a take-no-prisoners, self-destructive biopic.

Hnath has a remarkable gift of language and because there is little movement in “A Public Reading …,” he forces audiences to listen to his unique and distinct dialogue fragments, ellipses, loopings, staccato blurtings and repetition, with everyone finishing each other’s sentences. Director Mallinson has done a fine job in fulfilling Hnath’s wishes: that the play’s audiences are to think of what their own responses to Walt’s tirades might be, not just sitting back, passive, uninvolved, waiting for a happy ending.

Robert Rutland, the former Studio Arena Theatre resident actor who, fortuitously for Western New York, stayed after SAT’s demise, dominates the night as Walt, screaming, whimpering, his voice sometimes a silky whisper. This is Hnath’s take on the self-mythologizing Walt Disney, so believe what you will, dismiss as tabloid nonsense the rest. (That includes the urban legend of Walt’s obsession with immortality, so much so that the rumor has persisted for decades that he had his head cryogenically frozen for posterity or until such time that science might provide him with a new, working set of body parts.)

Rutland – up, down, threatening, in-your-face, wondering, demanding, exuding entitlement, bragging – is profane and perfect. A more complete portrayal would be hard to imagine.

Maher is not anything like the historical Roy Disney, but he, too, is superb, albeit in Walt’s shadow and the main target for horribly unfair barbs. Marisa Caruso and Darryl Hart come alive when summoned; she challenges, he cowers. Excellent performances.

A final, true Disney anecdote: Given a death sentence by his doctors, Walt went back to his office, passed a group of animators and yelled, “Keep up the good work, boys!”

Love it or hate it, the same shout should go out to this latest RLTP show.

THEATER REVIEW

4 stars

What: “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney”

Where: Road Less Traveled Productions, 639 Main St.

When: Through Feb. 15

Info: 629-3069

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