I go way back with The Simpsons. Back to the very start, in fact, when I gave the show a decidedly mixed review in TIME during its first season (I complained about the crude animation). I saw the error of my ways soon enough and have followed the show avidly ever since. I think it’s still the best comedy on television, and easily most influential — its mark apparent, not just in obvious cartoon imitators like Family Guy, but in all those insta-flashbacks and fantasy digressions that dot nearly every live-action sitcom, an homage to the animation-driven improvisational spirit of The Simpsons.
But I never thought the show could save the world — as it does, at least ostensibly, in Anne Washburn’s odd and fascinating new off-Broadway piece, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which opened last week to some rave reviews, a few equally passionate dissents and sellout crowds.
The play marries two increasingly common pop-culture pastimes. One is imagining our post-apocalyptic future — countless examples of which were on display in movie multiplexes this summer. The other is obsessing over the artifacts of our increasingly fragmented pop culture — evident in everything from the online dissection of cult TV hits like Breaking Bad, to a spate of tongue-in-cheek theatrical send-ups of popular movies and TV shows, from The Brady Bunch to Silence of the Lambs.
Mr. Burns is a more serious and provocative work than any of these. The play opens around a campfire, where five survivors of some sort of nuclear disaster that has left the nation (world?) without electricity are trying to recall the details of their favorite episode of The Simpsons. It’s the 1993 classic in which Sideshow Bob, the malicious kids-show character voiced by Kelsey Grammer, sets out to kill Bart Simpson, stalking him to a backwoods houseboat where Bart and his family are hiding out — a parody of the 1991 Robert De Niro film Cape Fear, itself a remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum. With civil order collapsing and cultural records presumably lost, this little group is hoping to preserve Western culture in the old-fashioned way: tribal memory.
The play is divided into three long scenes. The second one takes place seven years later, when the band of Simpsons aficionados has become a traveling theatrical troupe, performing episodes of the show (as well as commercials and mashups of chart-topping song hits) in a post-apocalyptic world where near-anarchy reigns and custody of old Simpsons episodes is the coin of the realm. The third and final scene (the entirety of Act II) takes place 70 years later and consists of a sung-through operetta (with music by the off-Broadway composer Michael Friedman); the Simpsons episode has now morphed into a stylized morality play, a cross between Gilbert & Sullivan and Japanese Noh drama, performed in rhymed couplets by actors wearing Simpsons masks, and Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear-plant owner from the show, replacing Sideshow Bob as the now-mythic villain.
To describe Mr. Burns properly, one first has to make clear what it’s not. Though there’s plenty of reveling in Simpsons trivia (references to episodes like Heart of Bartness and Much Apu About Nothing, titles that even serious fans of the show may not know), the play is neither a celebration of a favorite sitcom, nor a satire of the pop-culture obsessiveness that elevates it to mythic status. Rather, it is a layered exploration of the importance of mass-culture icons in a fragmenting world, the way we cling to the familiar in the midst of crisis, and the transformative power of storytelling. In the realm of popular myth-making, old Homer (The Iliad) and new Homer (“D’oh!”) aren’t that far apart.
Directed by Steve Cosson, founder of the off-Broadway troupe The Civilians — who often base their theatrical works on real-world interviews — the play grew out of improvisations in which cast members tried to remember old Simpsons episodes. The superb acting ensemble seems inseparable from the characters they play: even their first names match (raising an interesting question for future productions). Washburn’s narrative is crafty and subtle. Most of the details of the world-threatening apocalypse are only hinted at — offhand talk of cities devastated, debate over whether “the fires” started before or after the grid went down. We’re plunked down in medias res, in a world where new customs and survival strategies have already emerged. (When a newcomer joins the campfire group, each member reads off a list of exactly 10 names of friends and family members — a ritual that seems as crucial as it is hapless.)
The play is both scary and sweet, funny but dead serious, unique and wonderfully theatrical. The night I attended, the audience was filled with twentysomethings, there on a special “under 30” night at Playwrights Horizons. I doubt that many were Simpsons fanatics. Most were barely toddlers when “Eat My Shorts” was a national catchphrase. But at the end they all stood and cheered.