‘Mr. Burns’ Sees Post-Apocalyptic, Simpsons World: Stage

Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, from left, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier & Colleen Werthmann as Simpson family members Bart, Marge, Homer and Lisa in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play" at the Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater. The show is directed by Steve Cosson. Close

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, from left, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier & Colleen... Read More

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Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, from left, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier & Colleen Werthmann as Simpson family members Bart, Marge, Homer and Lisa in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play" at the Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater. The show is directed by Steve Cosson.

“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.

To pass the time, they recount, in as fine detail as memories allow, episodes of “The Simpsons,” particularly 1993’s “Cape Feare” parody of the grisly 1991 “Cape Fear” remake.

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.

Homer Runs

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.

Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Jennifer R. Morris, from left, Sam Breslin Wright, Gibson Frazier, Colleen Werthmann & Susannah Flood as Marge Simpson, Mr. Burns, Homer and Lisa Simpson, and Itchy in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play" at Playwrights Horizons. Anne Washburn's black comedy is set in a post-Apocalyptic world. Close

Jennifer R. Morris, from left, Sam Breslin Wright, Gibson Frazier, Colleen Werthmann &... Read More

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Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Jennifer R. Morris, from left, Sam Breslin Wright, Gibson Frazier, Colleen Werthmann & Susannah Flood as Marge Simpson, Mr. Burns, Homer and Lisa Simpson, and Itchy in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play" at Playwrights Horizons. Anne Washburn's black comedy is set in a post-Apocalyptic world.

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.

Art, Life

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.

Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright & Matthew Maher in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play." The play taps into cultural veins from Commedia dell'arte to Gilbert & Sullivan to contemporary experimental theater. Close

Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright & Matthew Maher... Read More

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Photographer: Joan Marcus/The Publicity Office via Bloomberg

Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright & Matthew Maher in "Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play." The play taps into cultural veins from Commedia dell'arte to Gilbert & Sullivan to contemporary experimental theater.

Through Oct. 6 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-564-1235; http://www.playwrightshorizons.org. Rating: **1/2


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Lance Esplund on art.

To contact the writer of this column: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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