Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play at Playwright Horizons
The idea that it’s The Simpsons that endures after armageddon is moving—that cartoon hijinks could be enough to form communities and stave off despair. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Show (through October 20) imagines an America in which an apparent nuclear catastrophe has brought down the power grid and crippled society, where strangers warm themselves over barrel-fires and the memory of the time Bart received threatening letters from Sideshow Bob. That episode is where the show begins, as survivors painstakingly reconstruct each line and scene from their memories. (Those somehow unfamiliar with “Cape Feare” will find this section tedious, despite how well-written the ramblings are, while those who have every line memorized will find it difficult not to shout the dialogue at the stage.) Laughing at old jokes provides a temporary reprieve from the danger around them, and as much as food or shelter, this is what keeps them going.
As time passes and society begins to rebuild, our heroes morph into a theater troupe that reenacts old episodes and barters for forgotten lines. (This is fiction’s only post-apocalyptic wasteland where my skill set would make me at all valuable.) Anne Washburn’s script does a good job striking the balance between the humor of the situation, especially the details of the charmingly makeshift productions, and its underlying sadness. But it’s from here that Burns enters its most audacious and problematic section, as the action jumps 75 years to an abstract musical retelling of the episode. Where the first two acts consider the importance of even low culture, the third examines how stories evolve and take on new meanings.
The idea is interesting, but it suffers here from a lack of context. The music by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love's Labour's Lost), is often amusing and even moving, but we don’t know who these performers are or what the material means to them. It’s also pretty abstruse; understanding this section requires a working knowledge of the Simpsons universe so you can see how it has mutated to fulfill new purposes: Bart goes from this century’s Dennis the Menace to an ideal of endurance and innocence; that civilization needs these symbols is self-evident, but it makes him as relatable as a god in a Greek tragedy. Burns’ early insights about lowbrow entertainment are profound, but trying to add profundity to the entertainment itself misses the point.