Through Saturday, October 1
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

Theater is not a democracy; there has always been something more than a little autocratic about the art form. That’s not only true of theatrical production itself, a process historically riddled with imperious directors and actors. It actually starts with the texts.

Scripts share a key trait with novels, short stories, and even screenplays, like the fictional one at the center of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, the season opener at Manbites Dog Theater, a coproduction with StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance. In each genre, writers completely control our access to their meta-worlds, determining exactly what we can see, hear, and know in every moment. Reading or enacting scripts involves ceding some fundamental authority; temporarily, we’re not engaged in our own story, but the stories of another.

So we’re on familiar enough terrain when Derrick Ivey steps from the shadows in an immaculate sixties sharkskin business suit by costume designer Victoria Ralston and confidently asserts, “I’m Walt Disney. This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

But what will be unfamiliar for most theater audiences is what happens before and after: stage and camera directions read aloud, not by some neutral narrator but the central character himself, as he underlines his command of all we’re allowed to experience. Paradoxically, Disney asserts that authority as he relates the tales of his own loss of controlof his family, his health, his entertainment empire, and his ambitious, if not megalomaniacal, plans to design and build a city of tomorrow in Florida.

Playwright Lucas Hnath based the work on less than flattering accounts of Disney as a man whose ruthlessly self-serving artifice pervaded every aspect of his artistic, business, and family life. In Hnath’s world, when a nature documentary involving lemmings fails to result in the intended cascade of suicidal animals, Disney insists on engineering one of his own. When he’s later accused of animal cruelty, he blames his nephew, who was a figurehead producer. Elsewhere, Disney justifies bullying his brother, Roy, the financial genius who funds his grandiose dreams (and a human doormat, as portrayed in a hangdog performance by Elisabeth Lewis Corley), and turns him into the fall guy when someone’s reputation must be besmirched: “You say your name means what my name means, that your name is worth what my name is worth?”

Walt enforces control throughout, silencing dissent with a directorial command of “Cut!” and rarely letting Roy get more than a word in edgewise. Their dialogue boils down to a continuous series of interruptions, with each choosing the single word or phrase that best undercuts the other. In one characteristic exchange, Walt optimistically offers up Disneyland as the basis of a new project:

Roy: It’s a

Walt: Perfect

Roy: Nice enough place.

Since such ongoing verbal sabotage begins to wear on the characters and the audience, it’s understandable that Hnath specifically called for the lines to “flow seamlessly from one to the next” in his script. But director Joseph Megel deliberately chooses to do otherwise, and the conversational gears constantly grind between the two brothers, Walt’s daughter (Lakeisha Coffey), and his son-in-law, Ron (David Berberian).

Megel wants us to feel every pothole and sense every manipulation for two reasons: It’s an antidote to the smooth, steady theatrical theme-park rides this region routinely produces, and it probes the fine line between artist and fascist. The bottom line is that professionally crafted aesthetic visions that depict a one-sided view of history shouldn’t always be trustedparticularly in an election year.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The Interrupters”