News Column

After the Apocalypse, 'Simpsons' Offers Comfort to the Survivors

September 16, 2013

YellowBrix

THEATER REVIEW

MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

New off-Broadway play, at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

Written by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman. Directed by Steve Cosson.

With Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Gibson Frazier, Susannah Flood, Matthew Maher, Jennifer R. Morris and Sam Breslin Wright.

Schedule: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $70. 212-279-4200, or ticketcentral.com

Before attending "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play," a seductively imaginative work by Anne Washburn that opened Sunday at Playwright Horizons, it's important you know that Mr. Burns is a character on "The Simpsons," the long-running animated sitcom.

He's Homer Simpson's boss at a nuclear power plant, and an all- around evil individual.

Washburn's play opens in "the very near future," after a series of explosions and meltdowns have destroyed the country's network of nuclear facilities, killing millions of people and completely shutting off the electricity supply.

Among the survivors are a small group that's come together in the woods somewhere in the Northeast.

They're sitting around a fire, absorbed in trying to recall episodes of "The Simpsons," relishing favorite lines and jogging each other's memories. A particular interest is a 1993 episode that parodied "Cape Fear," a brutal revenge film that was made in 1962 and remade in 1991.

When they hear a nearby rustling, everyone springs to attention and draws their guns. But it turns out the newcomer is just like them, a wanderer who's made it down from New England trying to escape the catastrophe and its poisonous clouds. In a poignant moment, the new arrival and the others check names in their notebooks, to see if anyone has come across another person's loved ones.

The second act takes place seven years later, in a world still without electricity, as a ragtag group of actors puts on a stage show of a "Simpsons" episode, embellished with additional lines, and including commercials, in a world desperate for entertainment.

And then, 75 years further on, we see another presentation of a "Simpsons" story, transformed. It's dark and violent, with the TV show's satire transformed into a kind of cathartic spectacle of good versus evil - with songs.

"Mr. Burns" is one of the smartest and most delightfully original shows to come along in a long while. Washburn, with exemplary assistance from director Steve Cosson and a dedicated ensemble cast - Matthew Maher, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Susannah Flood are especially notable - plus music by Michael Friedman, has created an odyssey of popular culture.

Immediately after the apocalypse, "The Simpsons" offers comfort, a touchstone of the familiar for people in the frightening grip of the unknown.

In the second act, the TV series is reshaped to fit the times, serving as a kind of bridge to the future.

Finally, "The Simpsons" is reinvented as a myth, a remnant of the past used to convey the horror and hope of the present.

Some of the scenes in "Mr. Burns" are a touch too long, but in the presence of such stimulating theater, that's a tiny quibble.

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