A public reading of an unproduced screenplay about the death of Walt Disney and A Death-Defying Escape

Kevin Ashworth gives a tour-de-force performance as the title character in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney at the Odyssey Theatre. Photo by Jenny Graham

As a child in Los Angeles, Disney movies provided a wondrous way to escape into a dark movie theater and enjoy the cool air conditioning on a hot summer afternoon. And there was The Mickey Mouse Club on television, perfectly timed to start just as I was getting home from school. But I remember my first actual look at Walt Disney occurred when he hosted The Wonderful World of Disney which appealed to families of all ages to gather and enjoy wholesome entertainment together. However, I never really knew much about Walt Disney as a person, other than he created Disneyland, the happiest place of Earth for a kid with no concept of the actual cost of wanting everything you saw there. All I knew was there was Magic. Joy. Happiness. Right in my own backyard!

And now, the West Coast premiere of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney by Lucas Hnath, written using biographies and imagined tales, explodes the ideals of Walt Disney in this fictionalized tale of the last years of his life, his brother Roy, daughter Diane, and son-in-law Ron who have gathered around a table to listen to Walt read/perform a screenplay he’s written about everything that is Walt, wanting to be sure the truth gets told before he dies of the lung cancer ravaging his body. Convinced he needs to be sure his family and the entire Disney world will miss him when he’s gone, Walt’s need to be in charge takes over, always making sure any mistakes along the way are found to be Roy’s fault. This is a play about egos, empires and changing the world, whether it wants to be changed or not.

Director Peter Richards shares, “Walt wants to live forever and control his legacy. But, in the end, those aspirations remain out of reach, and his attempts at shaping his final narrative – writing his own story, if you will – are a little sad, and most definitely funny. I’m not interested in demonizing him; I’m fascinated by his obsessions, as well as by how those close to him – his brother, Roy; daughter, Diane; and son-in-law, Ronald Miller – navigate their relationships with him.”

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is produced by Theatre Planners for Working Barn Productions as a visiting production at the Odyssey Theatre, starring Kevin Ashworth in a tour-de-force performance as Walt; Thomas Piper as his put-upon brother Roy; Brittney Bertier as his daughter Diane; and Cory Washington as his football-obsessed son-in-law Ron. And while so many facts presented are most likely as far from the truth as possible, many interesting imaginary tales are shared about the creation of Walt’s entertainment legacy as well as his dream of creating a perfect city, later to become known as Epcot, as well as the trials and tribulations of his creative processes. In the end, Hnath’s fiercely funny, highly meta screenplay-within-a-play turns the public persona of the self-made American folk hero, creator of “The Happiest Place on Earth,” completely on its head. Just remember, don’t believe everything you hear is true.

Performances take place Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through May 1. All tickets are $30, general seating at the matinee I attended. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. Parking is available in the onsite lot. For reservations and information, go to www.Onstage411.com/Disney Vaccination cards, photo ID and masks worn indoors are required.

Growing up Jewish in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, writer Judy Carter (who broke gender barriers as America’s first female magician) stars alongside Kevin Scott Allen and Lyndsi LaRose in A Death-Defying Escape, a darkly funny, inspiring new comedy about escaping life’s emotional shackles to find love. The play includes real, live, on-stage magic as a metaphor for our ability to “escape” the emotional issues and dysfunction of our past, combining Jewish humor, lesbian romance, disability awareness, and jaw-dropping, audience-interactive on-stage close-up magic in the 43-seat theater.

Directed by Lee Costello, in-person performances take place Saturdays 8pm and Sundays 3pm through May 8. Tickets to both the in-person performances and the streaming version are $30. The Hudson Guild Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038. Proof of vaccination (including booster if eligible) is required for admission and temperature checks will be performed on all patrons before entering the theater. Masks (no cloth or scarves) must be worn at all times while inside the theater, which is wheelchair accessible. To purchase tickets for the in-person show or virtual stream, visit www.deathdefyingescape.com.