"I've never actually seen an episode of The Simpsons," Gibson (Gibson Frazier) admits in the first section of Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, now at Playwrights Horizons. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say that I, like Gibson, have actually not seen an episode of The Simpsons.
Or to be more exact, also as Gibson is while he's confessing, I've seen random segments of Simpsons episodes--only segments not because I'm unaware of how potent the series satire can be, but because I just never, as the saying goes, got into it.
To be even more exact, I have now seen an entire Simpsons episode. I'd learned Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play had something to do with The Simpsons--and with a character on it, the Ebenezer Scrooge-like Mr. Burns. So I did what you do nowadays. I went to YouTube and found a pertinent episode--the one in which someone shoots Mr. Burns for his heartless behavior towards The Simpsons's fictional Springfield community.
The reportorial legwork was helpful to the extent that I understood the importance of Mr. Burns to Washburn's take on the long-running television hit. She imagines a United States in the not too distant future when a nuclear power-plant catastrophe of some sort has wiped out much of the population through radiation poisoning. That, by the way, is the "post-electric" part of her title.
To make what she has decided is a point or two (maybe even three) about the endurance of popular culture--not to say the hegemony of it--she's come up with a three-part study, the first part of which involves a group of survivors living at what they hope is a healthy distance from the radiation polluting the air and water.
Passing the time when they're not raising pistols and rifles against unexpected and possibly dangerous intruders, five of them--a sixth sits silently a few feet off--regale each other with what they can remember of Simpsons episodes. The reminiscers, whom Gibson joins, are Matt (the ever wonderful Matthew Maher), Jenny (Jennifer R. Morris), Susannah (Susannah Flood), Colleen (Colleen Werthmann) and Sam (Sam Breslin Wright). Don't fail to notice that all characters have the names of the actors playing them. Indeed, that sixth campfire member must be either remaining Mr. Burns figure Quincy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) or Nedra (Nedra Clyde). And don't you think the character naming choice is just the cutest thing?!
But really, no less cute is Washburn's entire undertaking, which has the look of something attempting to be downright devastating on the subject of where the United States and the world is heading. That's if what we were to take with us as our primary comfort in calamitous conditions turned out to be The Simpsons--good as it is, and truly amusing--and its popular television ilk and nothing the least bit higher brow.
Washburn is so wedded to her apercu that whereas the message she's sending could be contained in a 15-minute skit--if not quite a 140-character tweet--she stretches and stretches it through those three parts. The lead-in sequence around the campfire goes on far too long to keep an audience satisfied--with the only interruption of Simpsons episode details being the characters querying Gibson about possible surviving acquaintances he might have encountered in his surreptitious travels.
Sorry to report that extending incidents past their welcome is a tactic Washburn repeats, perhaps unconsciously. In the second part (the intermission follows it), the time is seven years later when the campfire crowd has now become an itinerant theater troupe. Their specialty is--you've guessed it--playing out episodes of The Simpsons, complete with commercials. You may not have guessed that competing Simpsons companies are obstacles the indefatigable folks face.
Sorrier to report that if you think part two unfolds with patience-trying lassitude, it's not a patch on part three, also known as the second act. It's now 75 years on, and The Simpsons has turned into the inspiration behind a full-fledged musical--with Mr. Burns (Wright) as the Devil and Bart Simpson (Bernstine with a jagged yellow headpiece) representing humankind's hope. Washburn's notion at this juncture seems to be that stagecraft in the post-electric age remains crude, and so the tuner--though well intentioned in the eventual uplift it's meant to offer this later generation--is deliberately amateurish.
Since Steve Cosson--with his background as the founding artistic director of The Civilians--is the director here, he's undoubtedly instrumental in having the music for the third-part pastime written by a Civilians colleague, the ubiquitous Michael Friedman. I should say that I've come to regard Friedman as the most overrated songwriter abroad in the City today, but since Washburn pointedly wants this supposed entertainment to lack professional polish, Friedman's tuneless tunes--sung by actors whose greatest strengths aren't singing--register as appropriate in these circumstances.
Aside from the otherwise nimble actors involved--all dutifully offering their support to Washburn's cause--other estimable toilers have also contributed. (On these matters, you can never fault the Playwrights Horizons powers.) Neil Patel's three sets--the last with a fake proscenium featuring exaggerated Simpsons figures--have the proper post-apocalyptic shabbiness. Emily Rebholz's costumes--many masks picking up on Simpsons synecdoches--also have the right survivor's making-do effect, as does Justin Townsend's lighting design and Ken Travis's sound design with its frequently ominous noises off.
Because Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play--and its attenuated pretensions and theatrical misapprehensions--so consistently frayed my nerves, I recognized it as one of those undertakings about which others who have their own pretensions are bursting to cry, "Work of genius." You don't think so? I say, Watch for it. Watch out for it. To my way of thinking, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is less close to Matt Groening than it is to Much Groaning. I won't even append, "Pardon the pun." I don't care if you pardon it or not. I'm that put out.