If the critics take a liking to playwright Anne Washburn's new drama, here's wagering that they'll begin their reviews with one word: "Excellent."
Place the stress on the first syllable of that adjective, for the name of Washburn's unusual new work, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, beginning Aug. 23 at Playwrights Horizons, is that Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson's obscenely wealthy and gleefully heartless employer.
Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson and the other four-fingered folks who populate Matt Groening's iconic "The Simpsons" are not actual characters in the play, but they are fondly remembered by the men and women in the story, who are first seen huddled around a campfire shortly after some sort of cataclysmic societal meltdown has robbed the planet of electricity. When they're not brandishing guns at the approach of every stranger, they entertain and comfort themselves by reconstructing an episode of the animated series. (Appropriately, given the source of Mr. Burns's wealth in the series, nuclear power plays a major role in Earth's ruination.)
As the play hurtles forward nearly a century in time, "The Simpsons" makes the leap from popular television show to beloved, but dimly remembered, cultural totem of a bygone era.
"I had this idea in my head for years of wanting to take a pop culture narrative and push it past the fall of civilization and see how it would change," said Washburn. "I thought it would be fun, but I thought I'd never do it." Then Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Off-Broadway collective The Civilians, approached her about applying for a commissioning grant. Washburn won the grant, and proceeded to congregate a group of Civilians actors in a workshop. With an approach vaguely reminiscent of A Chorus Line — had Michael Bennett's intentions been not to unearth theatre gypsies' hidden pasts, but rather their favorite Looney Tunes episode — she asked the actors to try and reassemble a single half-hour episode of "The Simpsons," using only their memories. From the workshop transcript came much of the first act of Mr. Burns.
"They zeroed in on 'Cape Feare,' because they best remembered it as a group," said Washburn. "Cape Feare," the second episode of the fifth season, is indeed memorable. Many aficionados regard it as among the greatest Simpsons episodes of all time. The show is a spoof of "Cape Fear," not only the original 1962 film noir starring Robert Mitchum as an unstoppable killer, but the 1991 Martin Scorcese remake starring Robert DeNiro. In the cartoon, the comically villainous Sideshow Bob — who is bent on murdering Bart Simpson — steps into the Mitchum/DeNiro role.
The play's characters are named after the actors who participated in the experiment: Quincy Bernstine, Maria Dizzia, Gibson Frazier, Matt Maher, Jenny Morris, Sam Wright, Colleen Werthmann. All, save Dizzia, star in the Playwrights Horizons production.
As the years crawl on in Mr. Burns and power remains off, memories of the old television show gain in importance. "It's as if they turn into a mythology," said Washburn. "The importance of the story changes, so that in the second act" — set seven years after the first — "the characters we see in the first act are now trying to scrupulously reenact the Simpsons story." In the third act, set 75 years further on, "the story has become a much more serious prism for thinking of everything that's happened in the meantime — and everything that happened at that time."
Thus, while past civilizations worshipped the sun, the globe's post-apocalyptic people — in Washburn's fancy — revere a quite different yellow entity.