by Hugh Hunter
“Something Intangible” (2009), by Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham, is now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls. Directed by Nancy Frick and produced by Chris Wunder, it takes you behind the scenes of the Hollywood of the 1940s.
Tony Wiston is an artist with manic vision and drive. Through the large rear window of his studio, we see an immense water tower with the inscription “Tony Wiston.” Having achieved world-wide fame with his cartoon hero, “Petey Pup,” Tony now craves artistic success with his new creation, “Grandioso,” an animated musical score.
“Intangible” is based on the struggles of Walt Disney in creating “Fantasia,” the relations between the Disney brothers, Walt and Roy, and their vexation in dealing with bankers and flamboyant Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski. It is surprising how well “Intangible” holds your attention; after all, you know “Fantasia” did indeed get made. You can give some of the credit to Frick’s fine cast. Eric Rupp is excellent as Tony, the artist who is virtually a prisoner of his own vision. Unwittingly comical, Tony is insensitive to the needs of others, brutal to his chief animator Leo (Josh Rothstein) and myopic to world events. (Pearl Harbor just annoys him.)
We see the story through the eyes of Dale (Michael Boorse), his aggrieved older brother and business manager, who talks about Tony to psychiatrist Sonia Feldman (Bonnie Kapenstein). Often seated in the dark, Sonia remains on stage throughout the play.
The production is often dazzling in its use of lights and musical effects. It also profits from sparkling performances from Court Van Rooten as the banker Doc Bartelli and Ben Kendall as the imperious maestro Gustav Von Meyerhoff. Together they create a wonderful sense of the obstacles the brothers have to face.
In his fashionable unmasking of the idol, Bruce Graham sometimes plays loose with the facts. For example, the real Disney was married (happily by most accounts) for over 40 years and had two daughters. But Tony is a pill-popping libertine with no discernible family interests.
To be sure, Disney is an idol. Not only is “Fantasia” a one-of-a-kind achievement, but Disney went on to create an entire world of movies and theme parks that embody that fuzzy collection of moral, social and political ideas we call “American Exceptionalism.”
Disney’s world of sober, moral probity may seem a bit old-fashioned to young folks today. (Consider recent Disney World graduates, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.) But at the risk of being Mickey Mouse about it, Disney lives on and says something fundamental about America. And it is because we have to know who Disney really is that makes “Intangible” so compelling.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “Something Intangible” will run through Jan. 26. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.