“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” is that rarest of comedies: funniest if you already know the punch lines.
Anne Washburn’s eccentric post-Apocalypse parable, at Playwrights Horizons, examines perseverance in catastrophe and, at times late in the play, demands it of the audience.
The first act begins as all energy sources have crashed. The power grid is down, nuclear plants are exploding and whole cities have been wiped out.
A small clique of roving stragglers has gathered around a campfire, sharing second-hand news of disaster and rumors of survivors. They’re armed to the teeth for protection against the night -- and one another.
Matt (Matthew Maher) seems to have the best recall and, with his verbal hesitations, is an appealing storyteller.
Eventually, the tale-tellers develop their “Simpsons” memories into a traveling stage show, complete with commercial breaks.
They support a cottage industry of dialogue researchers and “Simpsons” anthropologists. Rival troupes stake claims to coveted episodes.
“It still kills me they have ’Streetcar,’” says Matt, referring to another legendary Simpsons parody-cum-homage.
The players (Maher, Gibson Frazier and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, among the best) have begun to bicker over “true meaning” and “theatrical process.”
Would dramatic realism (like making Sideshow Bob’s bruises look painful) sacrifice the essential joy of consequence-free cartoons?
Act II gives us the answer, 75 years later: The joy is gone.
The troupe presents a bastardized “Cape Feare” as a foreboding and violent pastiche, borrowing from Grand Guignol, Commedia dell’arte and experimental theater.
Their grotesque Simpsons half-masks evoke the hideous, pig-faced doctors and nurses at the end of “Eye of the Beholder,” the classic “Twilight Zone” episode.
Nukes notwithstanding, “Mr. Burns” seems only marginally interested in the causes of social breakdown.
As directed by Steve Cosson, the play could be interpreted as Christian allegory, with its ragtag band of believers codifying half-remembered myths into elaborate and self-serious (not to mention profitable) rituals, martyrs included.
Joyless rituals aren’t much fun to watch. The second act of “Mr. Burns” is insufferable. Composer Michael Friedman’s “Feare” operetta is witty enough in its Gilbert & Sullivan allusions, but it’s an intellectual exercise, glumly presented, absent charm -- and a long, long way from Springfield.
Through Oct. 6 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-564-1235; http://www.playwrightshorizons.org. Rating: **1/2
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