Theater Summer Guide: In Mr. Burns, A Post-apocalyptic World Is Held Together Only by The Simpsons

Theater Summer Guide: In <i>Mr. Burns</i>, A Post-apocalyptic World Is Held Together Only by <i>The Simpsons</i>

A few years ago, a playwright, a director, and seven actors sheltered together in a disused bank vault far below Wall Street. Huddled behind a thick door that cell-phone service couldn't penetrate, they imagined themselves as survivors of a nuclear apocalypse. What would the changed world look like? How would people endure? What stories would they tell each other?

The playwright, Anne Washburn, offers one answer in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, an ingenious, dynamic, and occasionally terrifying look at how disaster transforms and appropriates cultural memory. After debuting at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth last year, Mr. Burns begins performances at Playwrights Horizons on August 23, with a new cast (most of whom participated in its invention) and fresh design team.

"I had this idea for years and years just floating in my brain," explains Washburn on a recent afternoon, eating cotton-candy ice cream in a Prospect Heights parlor. She wears an unseasonable gray sweater, thin-framed glasses, and a large pendant that depicts either a god or a demon, she isn't sure which.

Any last requests? "Cape Feare" as reimagined at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth in 2012
Scott Suchman
Any last requests? "Cape Feare" as reimagined at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth in 2012
Albarn's Monkey at Lincoln Center
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Albarn's Monkey at Lincoln Center

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"I wanted to push a pop-culture narrative past the apocalypse," Washburn says. "You could do it with Friends or Cheers or M*A*S*H, anything a lot of people would know."

Eventually, she settled on The Simpsons. But she didn't immediately write the play. What director would share her enthusiasm? Who would produce it? Then Steven Cosson, the artistic director of the Civilians, a company that derives dramatic works from research and interviews, approached Washburn about a commission, and she pitched him her apocalypse idea.

Soon she and Cosson had gathered their troupe in that financial-district shelter. Washburn had hoped she could prompt the actors to remember an episode centered on the series' arch-villain, Mr. Burns. But the one they could best piece together was "Cape Feare," a 1993 episode parodying the 1962 classic Cape Fear and its 1991 remake, and one in which Mr. Burns never appears. (His fans shouldn't despair; the insidious Mr. Burns still worms his way into Washburn's play.)

Matt Maher, a Civilians stalwart who participated in that first, week-long rehearsal, recalls it with pleasure: "I had grown to understand that endlessly describing scenes and dialogue from The Simpsons was not actually as satisfying and amusing to other people as it was for me—but here I had permission! The only thing missing was pizza and weed. I was in heaven." Yet the troupe must have puzzled over how Washburn would transform their maunderings—full of errors and digressions—into an engaging script.

Washburn's transcriptions of those early sessions, with actors grasping to re-create a show they only dimly remember, form the first act of the play, set just after a failure of the electrical grid has unleashed a chain of nuclear malfunctions. Seated around a campfire somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, survivors comfort themselves by trying to remember favorite television shows. In the second act, which takes place seven years later, rival troupes perform those shows for eager audiences. Finally, further into the future, the cartoon narratives take on a life of their own, providing new myths and origin stories for a changed world.

The resulting script is both goofy and intellectually rigorous. Characters engage in ludicrous song-and-dance numbers (Michael Friedman provides the melodies), even as they question the use of narrative itself. This combination of deep thought and surface joy won't surprise Washburn's devotees. Her previous works include The Internationalist, an American-abroad story largely written in an untranslatable language; Apparition, a sly series of ghost stories played on a mostly dark stage; and The Ladies, a previous Civilians collaboration that featured four dictators' wives singing torch songs plus a character named "Anne Washburn," who begins to take on some frighteningly dictatorial characteristics.

Both the drama nerd and the philosopher emerge even in casual conversation. Washburn calls the deadly rivalry among futuristic performing companies "a total theater-geek fantasy—if only people cared that much." She even has heady ideas about The Simpsons' cast. "The characters are so archetypal," she says. "Bart is the trickster, Homer is the holy fool, Marge is the long-suffering mother. You have these really ancient characters that they embody in a way that Friends or Cheers don't as much."

If the vision of the future offered by Mr. Burns comes to seem more chilling than hilarious, Washburn believes she's painted an optimistic picture of this future world—absent radiation sickness or obvious birth defects. Her research on potential nuclear disasters led her to conclude that "if the nuclear plants get offline, you lose the entire Eastern Seaboard. You basically lose the country. You get plumes, you get drifts." In that context, it's almost hopeful to suggest that Americans could somehow survive and reshape old stories to explain and celebrate this rebirth—Simpsons episodes as a new Beowulf or Nibelungenlied.

Looking around the ice-cream parlor, Washburn pauses to consider if such a place could endure in this new U.S. "I think Indian Point takes out New York City," she muses. "Yeah, I think New York would be bad. I think people would want to get out of here. The ice cream would be gone." But then her face takes on a more cheerful expression. "Well," she says, "it's not that hard to make ice cream."

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