Review - MR. BURNS: Post-Apocalyptic America Has A Cow
I used to believe, judging from my own experience, that if you've seen one post-Apocalyptic play, you've seen them all. They may vary in quality, of course, but there's pretty much a generic sameness to them; the unanswered questions about what happened to cause world devastation, the dangerous fight for survival among those who are left, the rise of a militaristic sect that tries to seize power... You know the basic scenario.
Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, technically billed as "a post-electric play," carries many of those same qualities. But where she chooses to take it is so unexpected, so crazily original, that you may find yourself teetering between finding whole thing a sophomoric bore or a brilliantly incisive commentary.
Imagine if the ancient Greeks were looking down on 21st Century Theatre folks and were aghast at the selection of plays we know of, and still perform, from their era. What if the artistically educated of their time considered the surviving works of Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides to be mindless, middle-brow entertainment? Popular, sure, and not without merit, but nowhere near the quality of works that are now long forgotten and lost forever.
And what if the versions we have of the plays of their civilization are more like copies of copies of copies, each varying from its original with details lifted from other popular works of their time or changes made to reflect then-current events and attitudes.
More to the point, what if the bulk of what future generations knew of our current artistic culture was not the plays of August Wilson and the scores of Stephen Sondheim, but vague, not completely accurate recollections of an episode of The Simpsons?
And if the thought of making The Simpsons the focus of a play with serious intentions about exploring the human urge to communicate through art and find comfort in the familiar seems like a ridiculous choice... Well, that's kind of the point.
Mr. Burns is driven by theme, rather than plot and characters. Whatever the disaster was that occurred, it involved a nuclear meltdown that left America (and presumably the world) without electricity. The first scene is largely a verbatim account of what happened when the playwright and director Steve Cosson met with a group of actors - most of them are in this cast - and asked them to try and collectively remember all they could about a Simpsons episode that parodiEd Martin Scorsese's remake of J. Lee Thompson original film, Cape Fear. Only now those recollecting are a handful of armed survivors, warmed by a late-night fire and comforted by their pop culture memories of the comical story of Sideshow Bob, fresh out of prison, attempting to murder Bart Simpson.
The effort is primarily led by a character played by Matthew Maher, who is emerging as one of Off-Broadway's more interesting actors with his immensely believable quality of raw, everyman naturalism.
An approaching stranger, played by Gibson Frazier, is at first greeted with guns pointed at him, but once it's determined that he poses no threat he's welcomed into the group, and they go through the ritual of comparing names of known survivors.
Gibson, it seems, has an extensive knowledge of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, which may seem random but figures heavily in the Simpsons episode they've been discussing.
The second scene takes place seven years later, and the group has formed a kind of renegade theatre company that recreates, as best they can, the television entertainment, commercials and pop songs of the electrically-powered world they once knew.
Scenes from the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons are rehearsed with makeshift costumes and there's a medley of hits like "La Vida Loca" and "Single Ladies." As there is still no electricity, they work by day, indoors under skylight.
The final scene - and this is the one everyone is going to be talking about - takes place 75 years later, and we're watching a complete performance of another theatre company's musical adaptation of The Simpsons' "Cape Feare" episode. There is now a primitive form of lighting and, by comparison, this company has a budget.
A masked chorus sings a prologue that, in ancient Greek tradition, explains the exposition, which has been altered to parallel the world-changing events and takes us to the climax of the story aboard the Simpson family's new houseboat residence.
The villain of the piece has also been changed to Mr. Burns, the TV show's mega-rich nuclear power plant owner (a wickedly hammy Sam Breslin Wright), who now resembles more of a cross between Mephistopheles and The Grinch.
The Simpson family has changed a bit, too. The satirical edge of the characters has been replaced with wholesome sincerity. Bart (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is now a fine young lad who takes after his kind and supportive father, Homer (Frazier). Were these changes the result of trying to pass the story on without the benefit of checking for details on YouTube, or were they an intentional choice meant to create a hopeful allegory for post-Apocalyptic playgoers.
The nearly sung-through score has lyrics by Washburn and music by Michael Friedman, which incorporates imperfect recollections of the theme from The Simpsons, today's pop hits and bits of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Though it's not completely necessary to be familiar with The Simpsons to get the gist of Washburn's message, it would be advisable to watch the "Cape Feare" episode on YouTube in order to get some of the references to the show. Without that insider knowledge, Mr. Burns may seem overwritten. With it, the play is much more entertaining.
While Mr. Burns never affected me emotionally, that final scene is certainly going to stick in my memory and, whether positively or negatively, be talked about a lot by those who see it. At the very least, Washburn is to be commended for her originality and audacity, Cosson and his actors are to be cheered for envelope pushing that never falls into silliness and Playwrights Horizons gets a thank you for taking a chance on a type of play that rarely gets seen above 14th Street and giving it a top-notch Off-Broadway production.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright and Matthew Maher; Bottom: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier and Colleen Werthmann.