Circle Theatre in Fort Worth is presenting the Texas premiere of Something Intangible by Philadelphia playwright and screenwriter Bruce Graham, author of Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Graham’s 2009 comedy is loosely based on the struggles of Walt Disney and his brother Roy to make the film Fantasia in 1940 — including their infamous collaboration with conductor Leopold Stokowski. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this review.
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Typically, when writers portray Hollywood, the studio moneymen are the villains. But in Bruce Graham’s play, it’s Tony, the Walt Disney character, the impulsive genius, who’s demanding and inconsiderate. He’s even driven his accountant, his own brother Dale, into therapy.
In fact, because of those therapy sessions with Dr. Sonia Feldman (Nancy Sherrard), we see Tony the way Dale does: Tony is the artist as brilliant, needy child. He’s a firestorm of creativity, enthusiasm, perfectionism and ugly resentment. He risks his studio and Dale’s nest egg for his costly, full-length cartoon with classical music – all because Tony hates the way the ‘Jewish bankers’ control the purse strings and because he needs to prove he’s more than just some kidshow cartoonist.
Actually, whether Walt Disney himself was a diehard anti-Semite has been the source of some historic debate. Marc Eliot’s icon-smashing book, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince details Disney’s right-wing politics, his hatred of unions and what Eliot sees as his lifelong bigotry against blacks and Jews (which pops up in the occasional, sometimes deleted cartoon scenes). But Disney biographer Neal Gabler has argued that although Disney willingly allied himself with anti-Semites, he wasn’t strongly prejudiced himself. He mostly just shared the garden-variety prejudices of the time. Believe it or not, one reason the view of Disney-as-ardent-Aryan has persisted is that white supremacists want to believe it.
All of which is to say that Bruce Graham has heightened history for comic and dramatic effect. Disney, for instance, met Leopold Stokowski at Chassen’s restaurant — and not, as here, after waving his arms and shouting, disturbing a Hollywood Bowl performance of the 1812 Overture by conductor ‘Gustav von Meyerhoff’ (Dennis Maher). So don’t go seeking one-to-one historic correspondences everywhere.
What history and biography have lent Graham, however, are some handy insights into character. Like many artists and neurotics, Tony wishes his childhood were fundamentally different, he wants to recreate it the way he wishes it had been. He’s planning a theme park, a detailed replica of his hometown (shades of Disneyland) — which Dale knows was actually a miserable, grimy coal burg. Growing up, Dale dreamed just of being clean. But this is Tony’s dream — of childhood, of wholesome, smalltown, middle America:
FERGUSON: “I’m going to build my own village, an homage to a simpler time. For the price of a ticket, you get to step back into time. No disease, no poverty, no war; a perfect world.”
As Tony Wiston, Chamblee Ferguson puts his beguiling boyishness to great use but he could dial down the manic energy on occasion. For actor Regan Adair, Dale is the latest, perhaps his most accomplished portrayal of inner anguish. It’s the contrast between Adair’s dapper bearing on the one hand and his sad eyes and stuttering manner on the other. The two actors are well-matched in the show’s yin-yang ping-pong between Tony’s extrovert enthusiasms and Dale’s introvert fretting.
Matthew Grey directed Something Intangible, and if the script lacks that intangible something that would make it great, it’s still a smart comedy drama, one of a string that Circle Theatre has offered the past two seasons — from Art to Incorruptible through Opus to this. They’re all small-scale and intelligent, and most have also been blessed with crisp sets from Clare Floyd DeVries.
The whole package is attractive: With Something Intangible, ‘Uncle Walt’ Disney would have hated the way his failings are on display. But even he’d probably admire the fine acting, good writing and sharp design work.