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Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright, and Matthew Maher.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rarely is the gulf between a brilliant idea and its execution as yawning—and as yawn-inducing—as it is with Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Anne Washburn's hyper-ambitious snoozer, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, begins with a killer concept that it neither ever lets go of nor develops into a play that is remotely as good as it ought to be. In fact, by the time its mind-bogglingly overstated finale is concluded, you may find yourself struggling to remember what about the evening ever seemed so good in the first place.

The answer to that is simple: The Simpsons. In case you haven't been watching much Fox for the last quarter-century, the title is an unveiled reference to Montgomery Burns, the endearingly sneering Charles Foster KaneĀ–like nuclear power magnate who lights all of Springfield and employs the titular family's perpetually confused patriarch, Homer. In her writing, Washburn offers myriad tributes to Matt Groening's now-iconic characters (Bart, Lisa, Marge, Maggie, and plenty of others), stressing at once their entertaining and social-commentary values and proving, through her usage, that they not only will be remembered—but that they deserve to be. As she reminisces about and recreates to various degrees key classic episodes, you get to both relive some of the funniest TV of recent vintage and consider the impact it's had on life beyond the living room.

That's Washburn's specific subject, which she invokes almost immediately: If the power went out permanently in our world, what would happen to the pop culture we currently take for granted? In the first act, such a disaster has more or less just occurred, and survivors huddle around campfires remembering their favorite lines and episodes. Act II, set seven years later, after America has begun rebuilding (yet, strangely, not been able to turn on the lights), shows that entertainment now exists exclusively in the form of vaudeville-like companies that present cherished TV shows live, buying lines and even full scripts as required to augment their memories. Evolution and adaptation run their course, eventually leading to something radically different—and just plain radical—in Act III.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier, and Colleen Werthmann.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As rich a vein as this could be for both comedy and drama, however, the only things that genuinely work derive directly from The Simpsons. I'd call the second-act scene showing the interrogation scene from the renowned episode "Cape Feare" (when FBI agents repeatedly try and fail to get Homer to respond to his new witness-protection-program name) the show's comic highlight, but that implies that there are many laughs to be found somewhere else. The more defining moments ooze forth when Washburn steps too far from her source, such as the curtain raiser in which the group of survivors we follow for many years recollect "Cape Feare," but struggle with the details: The delivery is awkward, the pauses (all of them undoubtedly intended) are endless, and none of it is engaging or informative.

Even the most original section, Act II, when the survivors also stage TV commercials and pop-music medleys (the appropriately derivative MTV choreography is by Sam Pinkleton), struggles to stay upright—there are a few too many discussions about the amount of Diet Coke remaining, or whether Chablis or Shiraz is the better wine. Because Washburn conceived Mr. Burns with director Steve Cosson, he's powerless to help things in his staging: Someone further from the material, who could close the gaps and impose tolerable pacing, would help tremendously.

The actors are similarly trapped, and though I can't say I was consciously aware of them giving performances (which in this case should not be considered a compliment) I'm also not sure I was supposed to. For the first two acts, everyone responds to his or her first name: Matthew Maher is Matt, Jennifer R. Morris is Jenny, Susannah Flood is Susannah, and so on (through Sam Breslin Wright, Colleen Werthmann, Gibson Frazier, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and, in the third act only, Nedra McClyde). Is this to reinforce the here-and-now nature of what's happening? Maybe. Is it daring? No. It actually gives everyone yet another excuse to avoid distance, and comes across as more than a little pretentious.

On that score, nothing—but nothing—tops Act III. As with everything else here, it's uncommonly intelligent at its core but unbearable in its presentation, fusing Neil Patel's apocalypse-cartoony set, Emily Rebholz's costumes, Justin Townsend's lights, and the music of Michael Friedman (of The Civilians, which originally commissioned this piece, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the recent musical of Love's Labour's Lost) into an in-your-face explication of how we make stories our own. Saying anything about it would constitute a spoiler, but the safest explanation is that it operatically blends fiction and fact into a simultaneous evocation and explanation of the world in which the performers are then living. Melodramatic conceits, Greek tragedy, archetypal characters, and rampant ravaging of public domain all play crucial roles.

If it's pretty backward-looking, it should at least be scintillating. Alas, it's much closer to stultifying, ten times longer than it needs to be, and so obviously written and grating to hear (McClyde occasionally sounds like a trained singer; the others, in true Civilians fashion, don't) that its elemental point, about how fantasy and reality intertwine over time to fashion works that are more than the sum of their arts, is fundamentally impossible to absorb. Because that last scene is thematically the key to everything, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play can ultimately never be enlightening—instead, it leaves you stumbling around in the dark, wondering how such an ex-x-xcellent premise could wind up more wrong-headed than a three-eyed fish.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Through October 6
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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