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Off Broadway Review: ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’

'The Simpsons' inspires this smart, original new play by Anne Washburn.

With:

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susanna Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright.

“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” an ambitious new work penned by Anne Washburn and developed with The Civilians, is a refreshingly original take on the fast-growing genre of the post-apocalyptic play. The earth is scorched and barren in the futuristic world of the play, but no worries. In the scribe’s comic vision, Bart Simpson and his friends and foes will always be there to help civilization rise again. Until this offbeat piece loses sight of its humanity with an overproduced pop-rap-operetta in the underplotted second act, it offers the hopeful (and quite touching) promise that theater will survive us all. 

A riveting opening scene suggests the way the play must have developed in workshop, with three friends (Matthew Maher, Jennifer Morris, and Susannah Flood) camping out and cracking themselves up by recalling in detail their favorite episode of “The Simpsons.” It’s “Cape Feare,” Matt Groening’s classic takeoff on the two movies made from John D. MacDonald’s great noir novel, “Cape Fear,” with Bart’s evil nemesis, Sideshow Bob, cast in the Robert Mitchum/Robert DeNiro role. The three embryonic storytellers get so carried away that a stranger (Sam Breslin Wright) is drawn into the game.

But a solitary woman (Colleen Werthmann) sitting in the shadows and out of range of their campfire is too spooky a presence to ignore. There’s also something off about Justin Townsend’s dim lighting of Neil Patel’s spare setting for this eerie outdoor scene.  So it’s a shock — but not a surprise — when another stranger (Gibson Frazier) arrives bearing bad news about the land that lies beyond the campfire. Some catastrophe of man-made design has destroyed the power grid and thrown the world into the deepest darkness. Living literally “off the grid,” the human race has taken up arms and reverted to its primal instincts as animals to survive.

Thanks to the taut helming of Steve Cosson (founding a.d. of the Civilians), the shift in mood is felt at precisely that moment of high tension when his superbly disciplined cast collectively reveals that there’s no going back.

It’s seven years later in the more lighthearted second scene, which finds the original characters, joined by a woman (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who looks good in a suit, further advancing the cult of the Simpsons as mythic gods. Like all those folk tales that our earliest ancestors told around the campfire, “Cape Feare” has been slowly evolving with each telling, into the narrative of a long-lost civilization.

The first storytellers have also been developing their art and are now a formal theater troupe, functioning like high priests in spreading the word of their gospel throughout the land. The show’s most inspired comic scene finds this professional company rehearsing the new Simpsons episode they are about to take on the road, building sets, sewing costumes, gathering props, and writing new scenes — commercials, too! It’s all wonderfully clever, from the witty costumes by Emily Rebholz to Sam Pinkleton’s tongue-in-cheek choreography. But the piece de resistance is the addition of Michael Friedman’s music, a pastiche of every pop song ever played.

Act two is the act too far, an overly literal interpretation of future theater as the final vestige of civilization. Some 75 years on, the original folk version of the Simpsons narrative has been buffed and fluffed into a highly stylized dramatic monstrosity performed in rigid masks to singsong poetry — something like an ancient Greek version of a Broadway musical.

It may be entirely logical that the theater of the future should function like the ceremonial theater of ancient times, as the religious altar where high priests lead the congregation in sacramental worship of mythic gods and their holy words. (Rock concerts and sci-fi conventions are nothing if not religious ceremonies.) But Washburn promised much, much more and settled for a song and dance.

Off Broadway Review: 'Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play'

Playwrights Horizons; 1978 seats; $70 top.  Opened Sept. 15, 2013.  Reviewed Sept. 11.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production:

A Playwrights Horizons production of a play in two acts by Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman.

Creative:

Directed by Steve Cosson.  Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Ken Travis; masks & wigs, Sam Hill; special effects, Jeremy Chernick; choreography, Sam Pinkleton; musical direction, Mike Brun; production stage manager, Kyle Gates. 

Cast:

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susanna Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright.

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