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


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.

“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.”

‘Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play’

By Anne Washburn

Playwrights Horizons

416 West 42nd Street, 212-564-1235

Opens August 23

Lincoln Center Festival

Performances begin July 6

The Lincoln Center Festival, which imports a splendid array of entertainments to the Upper West Side, has a reputation for serious and substantive programming. But this summer, organizers are content to monkey around. Specifically, they’ll stage the New York premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West, Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s anime music theater piece based on an ancient Chinese folktale. Other theatrical offerings include Shun-Kin, a collaboration between Complicite and Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theater, and a Parisian production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses directed by John Malkovich. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center Plaza,

The Tutors and Murder for Two

Performances begin May 22

The great selling point of summer has always seemed the long holiday from school, but Second Stage Uptown’s warm weather season declines to give educators a break. First on its syllabus: The Tutors, Erica Lipez’s comedy about a group of young adults who coach high school students. The curriculum continues with Murder for Two, by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, an edifying attempt to create a full-scale musical murder mystery with just two actors. McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, fourth floor,

Summerworks 2013

Performances begin May 24

Clubbed Thumb is a much beloved theater company with a commitment to producing “funny, strange, provocative” works, none more than 90 minutes long. Their annual summer showing includes new plays by Clare Barron, Jen Silverman, and Gregory S. Mosse, which revolve around such elements as freak storms, prodigal daughters, tar pits, and revenge. The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street,

Explorers Club

Performances begin May 28

Cobras, guinea pigs, dirigibles, feminism, wily natives, killer monks, revolting Fenians, more revolting cocktails, and the thrill of a passionate kiss all crowd Nell Benjamin’s dizzy historical comedy. Set within the stolid walls of London’s Explorers Club in 1879, the lively script concerns a lady anthropologist determined to win membership to the all-male enclave. Jennifer Westfeldt stars as the distaff adventurer, with Steven Boyer, Richard Easton, and Lorenzo Pisoni as her bemused rivals. Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street,

Shakespeare in the Park

Performances begin May 28

According to Shakespearean lore, the bard’s hyperwitty comedy Love’s Labours Lost once spawned a sequel, Love’s Labours Won. That follow-up remains sadly mislaid, but writer-director Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman find fresh inspiration in the original, offering a musical version of this romantic quipfest. It’ll share the Delacorte stage with the bard’s silliest script, The Comedy of Errors, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring the unerringly funny Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Delacorte Theater, Central Park at 81st Street,

Choir Boy

Performances begin June 18

When Tarrell Alvin McCraney made his debut with The Brother/Sister Plays, a lyrical, muscular, and ambitious trilogy that united African myth with contemporary African-American life, critics and audiences rushed to hymn him. If his next show, Wig Out!, offered less to sing about, expectation still runs high for this latest script, concerning the gospel choir at an all-male African American prep school. Director Trip Cullman supervises the score and arranges the textual harmonies. New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street

Nobody Loves You

Performances begin June 20

Very few of the matches made on dating shows result in actual marriages, but that doesn’t stop the new crops of gym-toned and tooth-whitened contestants eager to vie for televised true love. Second Stage’s new chamber musical, by playwright Itamar Moses and composer Gaby Alter, sends up the popular genre. It concerns a grad student who renounces philosophy books and embraces reality TV in a deeply misguided effort to reunite with his ex-girlfriend and sex up his dissertation. Michelle Tattenbaum directs the hi-def theatrics. Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street,

The Designated Mourner

Performances begin June 21

Playwright Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory, stars of the indelible indie film My Dinner with Andre, have racked

up a lot of meals over the years. That’s been especially true lately, as they prepare to revive Shawn’s 1996 play The Designated Mourner. (In the fall, they’ll offer the New York premiere of his more recent work, the audacious Grasses of a Thousand Colors.) The Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience collaborate on this show, a mordant, elliptical play about politics, morality, and loss, starring Deborah Eisenberg, Larry Pine, and Shawn himself. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street,

A Kid Like Jake

Performances begin July 14

Some Manhattan parents begin to plan for their children’s preschool placements while those children are still nestling comfortably in the womb. It’s an oddly cutthroat enterprise and one that becomes especially fraught for parents Alex and Greg, the protagonists of Daniel Pearle’s play. Their four-year-oldson has some niche interests—like Disney princesses and non-gender-conforming clothes. Director Evan Cabnet helps the cast play dress-up. Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65 Street,