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Theatre in Review: Small World (Penguin Rep Theatre/59E59)

Stephen D'Ambrose and Mark Shanahan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

In Small World, Walt Disney is portrayed as driven, deceptive, and egomaniacal -- in other words, an artist. For him, this is a step up. There is, it seems, a burgeoning dramatic sub-genre devoted to Disney as antagonist. It probably started 17 years ago with Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice, which deals with his doomed collaboration on an animated film with Salvador Dali (although Disney remains an offstage presence). The recent film Saving Mr. Banks recounts (and, reportedly, sentimentalizes) his fraught relationship with the author P. L. Travers, who went to her grave regretting that she sold him the rights to Mary Poppins. Lucas Hnath's A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, seen a couple of seasons ago, depicts Disney as mendacious and conniving, devoted to nepotism, and, late in life, addicted to pills and vodka. Then there's Philip Glass' opera The Perfect American, with a libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer, that paints him as an anti-Semite, misogynist, and Nazi sympathizer. Whatever happened to that nice man who used to introduce each episode of the Wonderful World of Color?

Disney, who was no better than any other movie mogul, has become something of a scapegoat for everything that's wrong with American culture. This is, no doubt, at least partly due to the success of the empire he built, which remains astonishingly vital half a century after his death. (This explains why nobody is writing plays about Louis B. Mayer; the best Jack Warner can do is a supporting role on the recent TV series Feud: Bette and Joan.) Allowing for all this, surely the picture is more complicated than our playwrights will allow; otherwise, how is it that Disney still exerts such a grip on the collective American imagination?

This is one reason to like Small World, a brief, barbed, often very funny two-hander that focuses on Disney's on-and-off dealings with the composer Igor Stravinsky. The play is subtitled "A Fantasia," an allusion to the animated film of the same name as well as an acknowledgement that these two creative giants probably never traded wisecracks as they do here. Whatever the truth of their relationship, the playwright Frederick Stroppel has plenty of fun mining the contrast between the glad-handing, commerce-minded, all-American Disney and Stravinsky, a world-weary high priest of modernist art. In Stroppel's hands, their first meeting, in 1939, is mined for some delightfully testy exchanges. Walt, putting his foot in it, notes that he loves French music, citing as his favorite Maurice Chevalier, an assertion that gets an icy response from the poker-faced Stravinsky. Tossing a conversational bone, the composer mentions the early Mickey Mouse vehicle "Steamboat Willie," describing it as "very funny. In a primitive way." "Well, 'Steamboat Willie' was one of my earliest works," Walt replies, on the defensive. "We are all haunted by our juvenilia," replies Stravinsky, mournfully.

Disney's determinedly friendly ways cut no ice with Stravinsky, especially when the former, in an attempt at flattery, raves about Peter and the Wolf and the latter has to point out that it is by Prokofiev. He also bristles at mentions of "Stokie," Disney's pet name for Leopold Stokowski, his Fantasia collaborator and one of the composer's bĂȘtes noires. And Stravinsky is horrified to hear that The Rite of Spring is depicted in Fantasia not as a tale of virgin sacrifice in pagan Russia, as he intended, but a depiction of the era when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Disney says such reinterpretation is all a part of the moviemaking process, leading to the following:

Igor: I never agreed to be "processed."

Walt: You agreed to take our $6,000.

Igor: I had little choice. I was told you would use my music whether I agreed to it or not, because it was public domain.

Walt: Well -- that was a bluff.

Igor: I didn't know it was a bluff.

Walt: That's what a bluff is, Igor.

Stroppel is pretty much content to let his odd couple fence in this fashion, finding plenty of fun in their opposing points of view, especially when, a few years later, Stravinsky -- now a full-fledged citizen of Hollywood -- returns to pitch an animated film based on Faust. In the play's cleverest passage, each of them spins out his vision of the famous legend. Stravinsky's take is basically the libretto of The Rake's Progress while Disney comes up with a treatment for Lady and the Tramp.

The playwright also posits a surprisingly convincing argument that the two men represent different sides of the same coin: Each is, in his way, a visionary, and more than a little ruthless about realizing his ideas. Disney is bent on pushing animation to new levels of sophistication, yet is haunted by the fear that he has lost his knack for reading the tastes of the American public. (The financial failure of Pinocchio, on its initial release, keeps him up at night, as, later on, does the gigantic flop that is Fantasia.) Stravinsky is beholden to nothing but his genius, but can't escape the nagging feeling that he will be remembered only for his early successes. By the time Stropple arranges a third meeting for them, in the afterlife, each has earned a grudging respect from the other.

A premise this slender could easily wear out its welcome, even with a running time of only 75 minutes, but Stroppel makes sure that both characters are never at a loss for a clever, pertinent comeback. (He could surely cut the line in which Stravinsky notes that the story of his ballet The Firebird is "a tale as old as time" -- I suddenly found myself looking for Mrs. Potts and Chip to make an entrance -- but this is a minor misstep.) Joe Brancato's direction maintains the rat-a-tat pace and vigor of a film by Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks, with fine work from the two-man cast. Mark Shanahan's Disney has a studied affability that never quite masks his calculating mind; he also makes us see the anxiety behind the smile, and when Disney rails against his striking animators, we see how personally betrayed he feels. As Stravinsky, Stephen D'Ambrose underplays pricelessly -- "There was one little riot. One!" he snarls, dismissing Disney's insinuations about the original reception of The Rite of Spring -- but he can summon an authentic fury when hurling a file of Disney's concept drawings to the floor; there's also a poignant sense of the loneliness that is part and parcel of his genius.

Brancato has also obtained a sleek, clever production design from his team. James J. Fenton's set is dominated by a series of curved or angled panels on which are placed sketches from Fantasia, alternating with pages of Stravinsky's music; it provides a constant reminder of the men's warring visions. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes are right in period and well-suited to the characters; she most tellingly contrasts the floor-length fur coat that Stravinsky wears (in California!) in the first scene with the white linen suit that he favors when he has gone Hollywood. Christina Watanabe's lighting is solid, and William Neal's sound design includes selections from Stravinsky, along with the whir and click of a film projector during a scene in which Disney screens Fantasia for the appalled composer.

Small World doesn't really offer much of a resolution: In their final, astral-plane meetup, Stravinsky does bring the good news that Fantasia is at last a success, having been taken up by college students who "take their psychedelic drugs and then they watch the dancing mushrooms." Disney is briefly mollified, but somehow this leads to an argument about the twelve-tone serialism that Stravinsky embraced late in his career. Theirs, it seems, is a battle doomed to rage forever. This juxtaposition of highbrow art and pop entertainment is the very essence of Small World; even if his characters are eternally locked in the same argument, they never wear out their welcome. -- David Barbour

(19 September 2017)

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