On the lawn outside Walt Disney’s snazzy new animation studio in Burbank, Calif., a young woman is out cold. The apple that was going to be her meager lunch has slipped from her grasp and rolled away.
It is 1941, her name is Betty Ann Dunbar, and her ambition is to become an animator — though at Disney, being a female artist means having almost no chance of that. She works as a painter and inker instead, and if her salary is so measly that she can’t afford to eat, so be it. She isn’t living her dream, but she is living dream-adjacent, with work on films like “Snow White” and “Fantasia.”
“I mean, the stuff we get to make here,” she gushes, after a worried colleague rouses her. “I just love this place so much.”
But that’s where you’re vulnerable, isn’t it, if the job you get undercompensated to do also fills your life with meaning. Throughout Cameron Darwin Bossert’s smart and entertaining new play, “Burbank” — a fictionalized retelling of a 1941 strike by Disney animators and the events leading up to it — the tension between passion and paycheck thrums like an underscore.
In a spare, well-acted production by the company Thirdwing at the Wild Project, in Manhattan’s East Village, Walt himself bestrides this lively drama, played by the author with a cigarette frequently in hand. On the cusp of 40, stymied by the war that’s eaten into the European box-office prospects for “Pinocchio,” Walt views himself as benevolent, much the way he sees his cherished Mickey Mouse. Sure, Walt expects his people to work long hours — the studio needs a smash ASAP — but it’s not like their environment is unpleasant.
“Why the hell would anybody need to unionize at a place like this?” he asks, as baffled as any 21st-century overlord who’s provided every amenity to a captive staff. “We got volleyball.”
Except that his employees’ lives are falling apart. Not everyone blames Walt for that; Betty Ann (Kelley Lord) figures she can’t afford to eat because she’s single and bad at budgeting. But many Disney workers, like the animator Art Babbitt (Ryan Blackwell), want a union.
The creator of Goofy, Art is watching his marriage collapse because he’s paid more attention to his drawings than to his wife, the dancer whose movements were a model for Disney’s Snow White. And he is haunted by the fate of Adriana Caselotti, who voiced that same character in the studio’s 1937 hit.
“Adriana’s contract stipulates that she cannot sing. Or act. In anything else. Ever again,” Art says to Walt. “Why would you do that to someone?”
The theme of taking a woman’s voice is woven through this slender play, with its repeated mentions of “The Little Mermaid,” a fairy tale that has lately captured Walt’s imagination. Online, Thirdwing puts the spotlight on female characters in “Disney Girls,” the “teleplay series” that’s a streaming companion to the play. But “Burbank,” the second half of a diptych that started with “The Fairest” — Bossert’s 2021 play about the women of Disney’s ink and paint department — is primarily focused on Walt and Art.
Curiously for a piece whose characters are all deeply invested in visual art-making, it’s in appearance that this production falls short — not because it looks like it was made on a shoestring, which it does, but because the set and lighting design, which are uncredited, are underconsidered. The fake-grass mat standing in for the lawn is distractingly bad, while the lighting lacks the fluidity that the play’s shifting moods and locations demand. But the period costumes, by Yolanda Balaña, are nicely done.
What’s remarkable about “Burbank,” which does not have a credited director, is that while it’s a labor drama, it sidesteps all of the traps that that phrase implies. Warm and alive, it’s layered with nuance as it captures the anxiety that can grip a workplace amid a labor struggle — and the ruthlessness that can ensue on all sides.
Through Sept. 18 at the Wild Project, Manhattan; thirdwing.info. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.