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Review: Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons

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Review: <em>Mr. Burns</em> at Playwrights Horizons

D’oh! Mr. Burns is an audacious ode to all things Homeric. What initially seems an obsessive-compulsive mash note to The Simpsons becomes a brain-teasing deconstruction of pop culture, theater, and ultimately nothing less than the storytelling instinct itself. A mashup of the trivial and the epic, the satirical and the tragic, Anne Washburn’s “post-electric play” makes for a bravura exercise in post-apocalyptic post-postmodernism.

The play’s three scenes take us from the near future to the next century, where a sung-thru adaptation of the animated sitcom, performed here in masks, harkens all the way back to Greek tragedy. This loop-de-looping cavalcade of narrative tropes couldn’t feel more up-to-the-cultural-minute.

Just before curtain time, my friend and I sat quibbling over Breaking Bad. He listed plot holes in the final episodes. I thought about never talking to him again. Then the play started, with a small group of people around 30 years old trying to recall every beat of a Simpsons episode—the punchlines, the exact notes of the score—while sitting around a campfire, the proverbial first performance venue.

Watching this, you might think, duh, a lot of people spend a lot of time talking to each other about movies and TV shows, but that doesn’t mean we should pay to watch it. Along with other typical activities like reading and going to the bathroom, such talk is rarely featured in films or on TV. What’s most refreshing about Mr. Burns is how Washburn stakes out the territory as her own and spins it in fresh, and blazingly theatrical, ways.

The group has come together out of need: A cataclysm has just decimated a large portion of the population and knocked out the electricity grid. But the extent to which they bond relates directly to each survivor’s fluency in Simpson-ese. The scene focuses on pop culture’s role as social glue, which temporarily loses its power to stick when a stranger crashes the coffee klatsch.

The fraught interchange, overseen by rifle-carrying Sam (Sam Breslin Wright), marks a major turn in tone. As opposed to an improv feel, this section is ritualized. Everyone has a notebook with a list of the people they’ve seen and the ones they’re hoping to find. Each gets to ask whether Gibson the stranger (Gibson Frazier) has seen up to 10 people.

Just as Washburn persuasively depicts the attempt at imposing order on chaos, Steve Cosson’s whip-smart production finds a common ground between the material’s extremes. He and the dexterous cast of off-Broadway stalwarts, including Obie winners Matthew Maher and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, flick back and forth from the absurdity of situation comedy to the dire pathos of the catastrophic situation without inducing whiplash.

The characters start trading stories of what they’ve heard and seen of the new-world disorder, but the reality is too much to bear. Horror-filled silences threaten to grind the social interaction to a halt until the discussion returns to the episode “Cape Feare.” Washburn reveals her prime interest to be cultural memory—which stories and characters survive and what functions they play. The Simpsons episode under discussion is itself an homage to the 1963 noir Cape Fear starring Robert Mitchum and its 1992 Scorsese remake, all featuring a family under siege from within and without.

In the second scene, seven years after the end of civilization as we know it, there’s still no electricity, so no broadcast TV or film projection. Theater has regained its pivotal position in society. And a small band of players is at risk from internal squabbles, competing troupes, and roving marauders. The company, run by Colleen (Colleen Werthmann), rehearses a reconstructed version of “Cape Feare” including staged versions of musical commercials for luxuries that no longer exist.

While Frazier’s role here is still referred to as “Gibson,” there’s no overt carryover from the first scene regarding relationships or character development. Meta-theatrics take center stage as the company charmingly uses rudimentary staging techniques to evoke innocence and a welcoming home. They bicker over which Simpsons episodes to stage and, in an effort to make their production more authentically complete, which people to buy missing bits of dialogue from. It seems there are liars out there making up their own lines.

While the first scene, as stylized as it is, persuasively evokes the tenor of many post-crisis conversations, the second is devoted more to demonstrating how collaborative theater groups function. Cosson and Washburn are central figures in The Civilians, a deservedly respected “investigative theater company” which develops its work through documentary research. Like their acclaimed musicals Gone Missing and This Beautiful City, even the futuristic Mr. Burns was built on workshops in which this cast (honored by giving the work’s characters the actors’ own names) tried to remember the details of a Simpsons episode. In this sequence, Washburn continues to till her theme of cultural memory, but the material’s emotional and even intellectual drive down-shifts.

The trend continues in the second act, set 75 years later and devoted entirely to an operetta. The approach is more Cape Fear than “Cape Feare” in its decidedly serious adaptation of their final sequence. The performers wear masks inspired by The Simpsons’s characters, their licensed merchandise, commedia dell’arte, and ancient Greek tragedy. The design (Neil Patel’s sets, Justin Townshend’s lights, Emily Rebholz’s costumes), as throughout the piece, is rough-hewn and stunning. The score by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, last summer’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, and resident Civilians composer) exuberantly mix-masters The Simpsons’s theme; Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, which is itself quoted in “Cape Feare”; the Grinch theme; and contemporary top 40.

Washburn and Cosson see Matt Groening, Sophocles, Scorsese, Dr. Suess, and Britney Spears as working the same groove. Like them, Mr. Burns culls from and contributes to the highs and lows of the hoi polloi. It stakes a claim for theater, even of the experimental strain, as an essential solution to a human need. Unlike the work of its progenitors though, the piece has no characters to glom onto. If the production ditched the intermission and reduced the two-plus-hour running time, it would be easier to stifle our expectations of more traditional engagement.

If you’re looking for a modicum of emotional investment with your satirical and intellectual provocations, you’d do better to watch a classic episode of The Simpsons. But that doesn’t make Mr. Burns any less brilliant or fun, only less accessible. Washburn and Cosson have created an exhilarating work of pop art.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play opened September 15 at Playwrights Horizons.