After the Apocalypse, the theater will survive. That is the central assumption behind Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, now receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons. It seems like a far-fetched notion when so many stage companies are facing financial ruin without the added pressure of Armageddon. If you really think about it, though, it makes sense. After all, in a world lit only by fire, the theater's electronic competition (movies, TV, the internet) would be instantly obliterated, leaving live performance as the only viable mode of entertainment. That doesn't mean, however, that intrepid producers wouldn't rob the graves of the aforementioned deceased media: In Washburn's future, live performances of television scripts (particularly The Simpsons) are all the rage. If you're able to suspend your disbelief, you will discover an infinitely fascinating and meticulously constructed play that is well worth your two hours. Watching it is like looking at a complex painting: The longer you look, the more you'll discover and you're likely to find new details upon repeat inspection.
This three-act play starts in the not-so-distant future, after an epidemic has decimated the population. A subsequent series of nuclear meltdowns (not enough engineers survived the plague) have poisoned the atmosphere and brought down the electrical grid. A ragtag group of survivors huddles around a campfire and tries to recount the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons, a parody of the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear. Seven years later, these survivors have evolved into a traveling troupe of players who act out not-quite-accurate episodes of The Simpsons and highly nostalgic commercials in front of a paying audience. In the absence of electronics, an entire economy of brokers, bookers, and actor-managers has sprung up to fill the entertainment void in this violent and lawless world. There are no intellectual property attorneys after the fall.
The third act imagines a much more sophisticated and ritualized theater, complete with musicians and stylized masks. An actress playing Edna Krabappel (the vocally powerful Nedra McClyde) comments on the action of the play like a Brechtian chorus leader. The show bears a passing resemblance to the cartoon we all know (the iconic tower of blue hair, the spiky Bart crown), but many elements are completely foreign, like a loving and wise Homer Simpson (Gibson Frazier) reassuring Bart (a heartfelt Quincy Tyler Bernstine channeling Nancy Cartwright) that "everything will be alright." The cartoonishly evil nuclear industrialist Mr. Burns (Sam Breslin Wright at his creepiest) becomes something distinctly more terrifying in this world still reeling from the effects of radiation. Echoes of The Flintstones, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and multiple Gilbert & Sullivan operettas reverberate through this endlessly captivating piece, speaking to the fluidity of a living, breathing culture that is constantly in flux and responsive to the hopes and fears of its participants.
Washburn has clearly put a lot of thought into this final act, which is the most thrilling of the piece. She has taken her knowledge of pageantry and talent for investigative theater, as previously displayed in works like The Communist Dracula Pageant, and projected it into the future with dazzling results. Michael Friedman's music adds a sentimental touch to the moralistic lyrics in Washburn's Simpsons pageant. The design is a work of art in its own right: Neil Patel's elaborately painted and whimsical proscenium is reminiscent of Chagall. It looks beautiful under Justin Townsend's imitation candle and gas-lamp lighting. Emily Rebholz has endowed her costumes with a semi-sacred feel, speaking to the thin line between religious ritual and the theater.
Of course, to fully appreciate the last act, you have to understand the first two. Director Steve Cosson (artistic director of investigative theater troupe The Civilians) has crafted the three incredibly distinctive acts of this play into one tight narrative. They could have easily become an incoherent mess under a less-skilled hand.
A surprisingly hopeful vision of the future, Mr. Burns could be appreciated for the sheer scope of its ambition and the breadth of its imagination. In this production, it also happens to be a highly entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theater that you will want to take in again and again just to see what you missed the first time.