That complaint flowers in the spectacular third act, set 75 years later. Washburn, Cosson, and composer Michael Friedman have imagined a full-fledged futurist theater where the Simpsons have become something like commedia dell'arte characters, masked stock types singing and dancing in an absurd and beautiful hip-hop/operetta mash-up of Gilbert & Sullivan, pop songs from the second act, the score of Cape Fear, the history of the apocalypse, and even stray remarks from characters way back in that campfire scene. The odd lark of a Fox TV comedy ending with snatches of The H.M.S. Pinafore here becomes the basis for an entire theatrical tradition.

This conclusion is all performance, the staged finale of a late-21st-century production of that Simpsons episode, with Bart trussed up on that houseboat and Sideshow Bob nowhere around—time and cultural need have revised the story. Instead, the TV family faces an even greater villain. Stranger still, they've survived a shift in genre—this is violent melodrama, tinged with Jacobean revenge tragedy and the kind of living-with-loss self-help narratives that would resonate in a population that has managed to continue after the world was broken.

While there are laughs, the spirit of this lengthy, challenging, dazzling ending is neither comic anarchy nor postmodern gamesmanship. Instead, with songs of horror and resilience, Washburn reminds us of the ways stories survive and adapt with us, how their specifics and lessons change to the society that tells them, how their meaning is inconstant but our need for that meaning, whatever it happens to be at a given time, is pure and permanent. Over the course of Mr. Burns, these pop memories—already borrowed from earlier pop memories, the original Cape Fear and its 1991 remake—become occasions for group remembrance, then theater and lingua franca, and at last ritualized art both fresh and ancient but always engaged with its age's great moral questions and—not incidentally—demonstrates the power and primacy of theater itself. Maybe, long before Sophocles, Oedipus started as a dirty joke.

Joan Marcus

Location Info


Playwrights Horizons

416 W. 42nd St.
New York, NY 10036

Category: Theaters

Region: West 40s


Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
By Anne Washburn
Playwrights Horizon Theatre
416 West 42nd Street

The stories we tell ourselves, the jokes we repeat, the TV in which we pickle—all that shapes us, the show insists, and none of it need be the dead end we might fear. From hell, Mr. Burns sends us to heaven.

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