'Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play': Theater Review

Mr Burns - H - 2013
Joan Marcus
This thematically ambitious and bizarre exploration of the nature of storytelling is only sporadically effective.

Anne Washburn's anarchic dark comedy set in a post-apocalyptic future imagines the survivors reenacting a classic episode of "The Simpsons."

That mankind will cling to culture in a post-apocalyptic wasteland is no surprise. That said culture would be The Simpsons, particularly the Cape Feare episode parodying the Martin Scorsese remake of the classic thriller, is the amusing conceit of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, now receiving an off-Broadway production by Playwrights Horizons after last summer’s highly acclaimed premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Unfortunately, the cleverness of the ideas in Anne Washburn’s truly bizarre comedy wears thin rather quickly. This exploration of the need for storytelling, and the ways in which tales are inevitably altered by the passage of time, quickly gets bogged down in self-conscious artificiality.

The play’s theme is a common one for the inventive theater company The Civilians (Gone Missing, This Beautiful City), who developed it originally and whose artistic director Steve Cosson has staged the piece.

The three-act play begins in the near future, when an apparent meltdown of nuclear plants has resulted in the loss of electrical power and the near-decimation of the population. A ragtag group of survivors huddles in the woods, rehashing their memories of the classic Simpsons episode featuring the villainous character who gives the play its title. Their comic riffing, including a very funny vocalization of the haunting Cape Fear theme music, is interrupted by the arrival of an interloper, with whom they trade names of the disaster’s survivors.

The next segment takes place seven years later, when the group has formed a motley theater company performing Simpsons episodes, complete with commercials, in an abandoned warehouse. Their entertainment also includes elaborately choreographed renditions of such popular hits as “Single Ladies,” “La Vida Loca,” “Eye of the Tiger” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” The proceedings are interrupted by a shocking, violent shootout leading to an intermission.

Set another 75 years later, the final segment is a full reenactment of Cape Feare, this time performed as a combination Greek tragedy/musical pageant featuring original songs by Michael Friedman and the cast wearing masks suggesting the classic animated characters. But this version inevitably differs in significant ways from the original, including the substitution of Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear power plant owner, for the episode’s original villain, Sideshow Bob.

It’s all very dizzying and necessarily dependent both on a reasonable familiarity with both the Scorsese film and the long-running animated series. Other cultural touchstones referenced include the classic screen thriller The Night of the Hunter and The Mikado, with a rendition of “Three Little Maids” prominently figuring in the action.

It’s certainly an audacious and thematically imaginative concept. But despite its undeniable ambition, the bizarre play is more wearisome than entertaining or thought-provoking. The endless digressions, including an admittedly very funny riff on the aesthetic appeal of Pret a Manger sandwiches, only serve to emphasize the bloated nature of the proceedings.

Cosson’s staging is consistently inventive; Neil Patel’s multi-faceted sets feature many clever touches; and the eight-person ensemble—Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann and Sam Breslin Wright—handles the material’s unique demands with tremendous skill and versatility. But despite their fine efforts, Mr. Burns, a Post Electric-Play never quite lives up to the potential of its anarchic premise.  

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York (runs through Oct. 20)

Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright.

Director: Steve Cosson

Playwright: Anne Washburn

Composer: Michael Friedman

Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton

Scenic designer: Neil Patel

Costume designer: Emily Rebholz

Lighting designer: Justin Townsend

Sound designer: Ken Travis