By: David Sheward
If American civilization disintegrates in a nuclear holocaust, what will remain? According to playwright Anne Washburn, scraps of pop culture will survive and be reformed into kitschy entertainment, the underlying theme of humanity triumphing over its own destruction. That’s the basic premise of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, now at Playwrights Horizons after a run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. Yet there’s much more here than this TV Guide-style summation. Washburn explores the capacity for art—whether low or high—to keep us going and reflect where we’ve been.
The play takes places after an unspecified disaster has wiped out most of the world’s population along with the electrical grid. The program lists the setting as “Near. Soon.” A group of drifters are sitting around a campfire trying to reconstruct the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons.That’s the one that satirizes Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 thriller with Sideshow Bob, bad boy Bart’s erudite nemesis standing in for the demonic Robert De Niro. The Scorsese film in turn is a remake of a 1962 feature, and the episode also contains references to Gilbert and Sullivan and another cult cinema classic, The Night of the Hunter. In the second act, set seven years later, this collection of strangers has formed a theatrical troupe performing Simpsons episodes along with recollected commercials and Top 40 medleys for a TV-deprived, increasingly lawless society.
The third act shoots ahead 75 more years and consists of a musical performance by a descendent of the second-act company in a weird, operetta-style mashup of all the Simpsons segments. The titular character, Homer’s craven boss at the nuclear power plant (played with hand-wringing relish by Sam Breslin Wright), becomes a radioactive supervillain representing all the terror that has poisoned the earth. Bart (a spunky Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is now a stand-in for beleaguered humanity bravely overcoming this grinning menace. In this bizarre, brilliant play, Washburn shows that by telling and retelling the same stories, distorted and reformed over time, art in general and theater in particular rejuvenates the human spirit. That’s a bit weighty and belies the seemingly trivial nature of much of the action. Yet, thanks to Steve Cosson’s simultaneously dark and hilarious staging and the unself-conscious performances of a tight ensemble, it somehow works.
The ridiculous importance the characters place on throwaway details—such as finding the exact shade of grease to put on Sideshow Bob’s face—is perfectly balanced with a horrifying realistic depiction of their desperate situation. One minute they are arguing over the correct reading of a punch line, and the next their lives are threatened by unseen marauders breaking into their makeshift theater.
Neil Patel’s ingenious set, Emily Rebholz’s time-tripping costumes, and Sam Hill’s mask and wig design create a scary, cobbled-together world like a cartoon-addict’s vision of the future.
Thru Oct. 20. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $70. (212) 279-4200.
*Photo: Joan Marcus