Anne Washburn has a number of good ideas in this play, but the execution falls short in ways that are typical of most products of our new play development industry.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn. Score by Michael Friedman with lyrics by Anne Washburn. Directed by A. Nora Long. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Boston, MA, through May 7.
By Ian Thal
In a wooded backyard by a stream somewhere in Connecticut, a small group of people lounge about a trashcan fire, seated in chairs and love seat. One of their number, Matt (Joseph Marrella), is recalling an episode from his favorite television show – “Cape Feare,” a Jon Vitti-scripted parody of the Marin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 movie Cape Fear, which ran during season five of The Simpsons. As memories are jogged, others start contributing lines. The scene is familiar to those who came of age before streaming media and iPhones. Suddenly, a noise is heard in the darkness; a shotgun and pistols are drawn. This seemingly friendly gathering is made up of a group of twitchy survivalists who have found each other months after an unspecified apocalypse has decimated America.
The noise turns out to be Gibson (Nael Nacer) who has been hiking through the depopulated wasteland. In what appears to be a ritual amongst survivors, they exchange the names of loved ones, attempting to learn news about survivors. Anecdotes are shared, conjectures are made. Providence, Rhode Island appears to have been evacuated. Boston has descended into barbarism. Nuclear power plants all across the United States have been shut down (or did they melt down?) simultaneously: radioactive material was released – over a hundred Fukushima and Chernobyl-scale nuclear disasters. Tens of millions are already dead; the electrical grid is down. The group eventually goes back to The Simpsons, and the discussion turns to the end of the “Cape Feare” episode. Villainous Sideshow Bob sings the score of H.M.S. Pinafore. Gibson reveals that before the collapse he had been a member of an amateur Gilbert & Sullivan society.
In the next two acts of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play – one set seven years later, next taking place seventy-five years after that, dramatist Anne Washburn explores how civilization rebuilds itself through theater, its efforts dependent on attempts to recreate long-lost episodes of The Simpsons.
For twenty-seven years, The Simpsons, at its best, has been a smart, often subversive commentary on American culture in the post-Cold War era. So it would not be surprising if, in some future era, annotated editions of the series will be used to introduce students to our milieu, much as Shakespeare’s plays are used by educators as a way to understand the milieux of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Washburn’s decision to turn that reasonable premise into a post-apocalyptic fantasia shows impish imaginative promise. (One question left unexplored: Why, in a world where electronic and digital media has vanished, does no one seize the opportunity to write new plays, or work from materials published in books?)
Washburn has a number of good ideas in this play, but the execution falls short in ways that are typical of most products of our new play development industry (the play, which premiered in 2012 at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth, was a commission by the New York-based company, The Civilians). The first act set-up is clever: people who have endured the-end-of-the-world bond over the stories that used to make them laugh. But the scenario is marred by Washburn’s dependence on the the workshop process; the dialogue is based on actors’ improvisations. It’s one thing to have the play’s figures unsure of just what has left large parts of the United States a radioactive wasteland and most of their fellow citizens dead. But the playwright does not seem to know what happened either. And it’s charming that our band of multi-ethnic, gun-totting survivalists are decent people who love The Simpsons. Still, it is way too convenient that no one wonders why America’s nuclear power plants simultaneously vented waste across the country. No curiosity, no anger, no wows of revenge for lost loved ones; there isn’t even a hunt for a scapegoat. American paranoia doesn’t exist: no anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (the late Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Amri Baraka, insinuated that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks), no talk about government tyranny, no anti-immigrant sentiments, nothing about Islamophobia (that omission is particularly surprising now; it been widely reported that the plotters of the last month’s Brussels attacks were attempting to acquire materials for a “dirty bomb.”) The bottom line is that Washburn and her collaborators among The Civilians decided to play it safe, offend no one, and avoided bold artistic and political choices.
In the second act what is left of America begins its journey to recovery. Our protagonists, with the help of a couple of more like-minded survivors, earn their living as a traveling theater troupe that reconstructs Simpsons episodes. Washburn introduces a cultural economy in which people are paid for remembered lines of dialogue. There’s also a new theatrical genre: “commercials” – not advertisements, but plays that nostalgically fetishize all the consumer goods and creature comforts people enjoyed before the catastrophe. These details are certainly intriguing – and the meta-theatrical backstage business is an easy sell to both audiences and artists – but the drama is plodding. And for members of a ‘successful’ comedy troupe, these stage exchanges are remarkably unwitty – they lack even flickers of gallows humor.
In the next act the story picks up again some eighty-two years after the apocalypse with a musical production of “Cape Feare” in which Bart Simpson has been turned into a mythological progenitor of the society that has emerged from America’s radioactive ashes. The opening movement has some dark promise: it is suggested that Mr. Burns – the elderly owner of the Springfield nuclear plant, and frequent villain on the show – deliberately caused the meltdown. And while the chorus describes the ensuing chaos its members also list the names of the dead – some of which fans might recognize from the closing credits of the TV program. Director A. Nora Long is at her most inspired here: the performers peel off masks, revealing a series of masks underneath, recalling the “face changing” Bian Lian performers in the Sichuan opera. But the musical quickly declines into the most anodyne pastiche possible.
It turns out that Washburn’s decision to make The Simpsons her source material came fairly late in the game (earlier in the development, she considered Friends, Cheers, and M*A*S*H). The problem with her choice is that she really doesn’t seem to grasp why The Simpsons resonate as anarchistic, satiric archetypes. Rather than truly transpose the iconic family into the post-apocalyptic world, imagining how they would change over the decades, the third act’s Bart Simpson (Aimee Doherty) has simply gone from “that spirited little scamp” to the most generically bland musical theater protagonist imaginable. The rest of his family members are reduced to nothing more than hostages and murder victims. Fans of Lisa Simpson (Lindsey McWhorter), the wise and brave middle child, will be disappointed (possibly disgusted) that she is given the full victim treatment – with the suggestion of an off-stage rape just before her off-stage execution. (Her demise whizzes by so quickly that it has no dramatic weight let alone shock value. Maybe life is cheap in the future.) Only Mr. Burns (Brandon G. Green), here a composite of Burns and a recognizable Sideshow Bob, is engaging as the over-the-top villain. Indeed, Green’s rich voice and slinky movements transcend the less-than-inspiring material.
At the beginning, Michael Friedman’s score has some good bits, particularly those that recall the 1980s concept albums of the experimental rock and performance art group The Residents. But he is hampered by Washburn’s need to randomly shoehorn in lines lifted from the likes of Kanye West, Britney Spears, and Marc Ronson. Given all they are called to play, the house band, led by Allyssa Jones, comes through with great aplomb.
Washburn barely bothers to invest her characters with distinct personalities (script composition by way of workshop tends to discourage idiosyncrasies), but the cast members do their best against the monochromatic script. Nacer nicely performs “Three Little Lads From School” from a gender-flipped Mikado and later has a moving dramatic moment as the survivor who has been most visibly traumatized by the apocalypse. Marrella also generates some laughs as a dumbfounded Homer Simpson in the second act.
Given the inventive visuals of the source material, scenic designer Shelley Barish has her work cut out for her. She does a fine job with the first act’s wooded backyard – but, perhaps as a reflection of the poverty of post-apocalyptic theater productions, the sets become cheaper and cheaper with each act. Lauren Duffy’s masks do a fair job of evoking the Simpsons in a future where no one has actually seen The Simpsons. Her best work comes when she is given the greatest freedom – both with the Sideshow Bob/Mr. Burns composite and the face-changing chorus members. The only truly Simpsons-worthy visual element here is the lighting rig made up of found objects (created by Wen-Ling Liao) that descends from the heavens at the play’s close.
After the production ended, I could hear more than one audience member as they walked out of the auditorium wonder if they would have better appreciated Mr. Burns if they were fans of The Simpsons. But even ardent admirers would most likely be disappointed with this attempt to have The Simpsons hang around after Armageddon — the heart and soul of the cartoon have been incinerated by the flames.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.