Following the mass-scale catastrophe and grid collapse that sets in motion Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, five survivors who find one another in a wooded clearing attempt to grasp what remains of a recognizable world. They compile details to ascertain what happened, read off names of loved ones, and tell funny stories as a healing mechanism. That last act of catharsis is the creative impulse behind Mr. Burns, now running at Playwrights Horizons and extended through October 20th. The play opens with the characters clustered around a camp fire, retelling the narrative of the Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare”, a spoof of the film Cape Fear, which itself was a remake of the earlier film, Cape Fear. The experience of watching these characters retell the episode, complete with uncanny Sideshow Bob impersonations, has obvious appeal for Simpsons fans. But the scene holds much more symbolism: at its essence, it is an homage to oral storytelling – the oldest of rituals: layered in narrative, varying with each telling, and as meaningful an art form as the stories themselves.
I love what Mr. Burns sets out to do. Playwright and Civilians co-founder Anne Washburn is an exceptional talent, and the first act of Mr. Burns was near perfect, as I saw it. The central character of the first act is played by Matthew Maher – a gifted, hilarious, and touching actor who made The Flick (at Playwrights Horizons last year) one of the most memorable plays of the season. His recollections of detailed plot points and reenactments of Simpsons characters were in fact essential to Washburn’s script development and are wonderful to watch, culminating in a punch line that his character cannot recall. Yet the humor is set off by palpable eeriness, heightened each time the characters remember where they are.
When a stranger stumbles onto the campsite, the group raises found weapons before accepting him as nonthreatening. Laying down their guns, they pick up notebooks and each begins to read a list of names – family members, friends, and neighbors who have gone missing. I found this to be one of the most moving parts of the play, at once a search attempt and a surrogate memorial for those likely already lost. The weight of confusion and sadness is lifted when the newcomer recalls the forgotten Simpsons line. The play could have ended there as a complete work.
Each act of Mr. Burns might actually function as its own play. But the first act, as I saw it, would be the only effective one. I had expected that the show’s subsequent acts would embark on a more theatricalized reenactment of the Simpsons episode narrated in the opening act. But instead, the genius creation of Anne Washburn gets eclipsed by its weirdness. In the second act, the story jumps seven years into the future, wherein the characters attempt to recreate a Simpsons narrative where attention to their target audience through heavily scripted commercials – one oddly dialogue-heavy, the other featuring a campy montage of pop songs – trumps the Simpsons narrative itself. The third act, which leaps ahead 75 more years (for reasons that are unexplained) transforms The Simpsons into a musical and one that completely changes the story from the “Cape Feare” episode. Rather than Sideshow Bob, who plays the villain in that episode, Mr. Burns is now the adversary whom Bart must defeat.
Michael Friedman’s score, which fills the musicalized third act, is affecting and smart, but it doesn’t connect back to the first act in a meaningful way. Why does the musical section of the show eliminate nearly all correlation to the “Cape Feare” episode? It can’t simply be to show how narrative morphs over time. The poignant, clever story introduced in the first act is sadly and frustratingly derailed by the third. All of those threads about how stories heal, how shared laughter can unite strangers, and how narrative grows out of its earlier forms dissolve into an inchoate blur of songs and disturbing Simpsons masks.
Needless to say, it was bewildering to read reviews that lauded the complete show as “brilliant”. And yet, I respect the work for being intrepidly different . It's encouraging that a show like Mr. Burns can sell out an extended run at an Off-Broadway theater. It’s encouraging that Playwrights Horizons, and Wooly Mammoth Theatre before that, took a chance on such a bizarre creation. It’s encouraging that ticket buyers have an appetite for original work. It all means that adventurous plays are worth doing. Even the ones that get seriously weird by Act Three.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus