When The Lights Go Out, Dumb Jokes Keep Us Warm

Next time you're on a road trip, kill time between exits by telling your fellow travelers the complete story of The Godfather, scene by scene. Strive to conjure up as much detail as possible. Ask your friends for help, and you're no longer just telling a story, you're creating one—even if it is just paint by numbers. Get into an argument about how a specific line, or scene or shot went? Relax. You can always check the DVD when you get home.

This is where Anne Washburn begins Mr. Burns: a post-electric play, which premiered last year at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and is playing at New York's Playwrights Horizons through October 6. Civilization has collapsed in a nuclear haze, and a gang of survivors huddle around the campfire, trying to keep out the dark by retelling an old Simpsons episode. They cobble it together bit by bit, without the DVD safety net to help them fill in gaps, knowing that whatever they can't remember will be lost to history. The world has gone dark, and no one will ever watch The Simpsons again.

Five actors on stage
From left, Jennifer R. Morris, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Sam Breslin Wright and Matthew Maher in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play at Playwrights Horizon. Photo by  Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This is a melancholy thought, especially for someone who has been watching The Simpsons his entire life. That caustic yellow family first appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show a few months before I was born, and took to primetime when I was two. As a child, my evenings revolved around the 5 p.m. syndicated episode, and the show still has the power to take me back to childhood. It's a security blanket, and if the world ended, it's where I would turn as well.

The Simpsons is an incredibly rich text, stuffed with intricate throwaway gags that make each episode endlessly watchable, and—as Washburn's characters quickly figure out—surprisingly hard to remember in full. Everyone knows The Simpsons,  and that shared understanding is strong enough to support anything Washburn wants to make of it. By the end of the second act of Mr. Burns, she has stripped America's longest-running scripted show down to its essentials, allowing her to build something entirely new out of familiar parts. That the play eventually collapses is not because she asks too much of her source material, but because she doesn't take it far enough.

 

You're no longer just telling a story, you're creating one—even if it is just paint by numbers

 

The play starts with five refugees from eastern cities trying to remember the opening to "Cape Feare," in which Kelsey Grammer's homicidal showman Sideshow Bob chases the family into the witness protection program. One of the most memorable Simpsons episodes, “Cape Feare” is full of quality bits that play just as well on stage, half-remembered but delivered with desperate enthusiasm, as they do on TV. ("Die Bart Die" gets a particularly well-deserved laugh.)

“Cape Feare’s” big finish, when Bart staves off execution by asking Bob to perform the entire score of H.M.S. Pinafore, has a theatricality that bleeds nicely into a stage show. More importantly, this parody of the remake of Cape Fear is a copy of a copy, embellished with allusions to James Bond and Night of the Hunter and whatever else was on the staff writers' minds in 1993.

Like so many great Simpsons episodes, “Cape Feare” is a warped reflection of the whole of American pop culture, making it appropriate that Washburn warps it further—first as a half-remembered campfire story, and then as a creation myth for the new society. The Simpsons reinvent themselves as The Thompsons—Homer has particular trouble with this—and, as they recall the show, the survivors of a ruined America reinvent themselves as well.

We see this evolution over the next two acts, first seven years later, and then 75. The second act is the most interesting of the play, when we see our gang of storytellers rehearsing "Cape Feare" for their live action Simpsons show, which travels the shattered country, filling out its scripts by buying jokes from those who remember them. (I would have done well in this future, unless they already found someone who knows all the words to the Stonecutters song.) As in the first act, Washburn renders her apocalypse effortlessly, tossing out trifling details about a Diet Coke shortage and chilling ones about deformed babies, and letting the audience fill in the rest.

 

The showmen perform an electric ballad of "Chart Hits," rushing through an a cappella medley of everything from "Toxic" to "Single Ladies" to "The Muppet Show Theme Song," and deliver a crushing commercial for the electric life they've lost, for the bubble baths and hot cocoa of a vanished world

 

The play's most effective observation comes here, and it's that when the world we know disappears, it's the trivial things we miss. The showmen perform an electric ballad of "Chart Hits," rushing through an a cappella medley of everything from "Toxic" to "Single Ladies" to "The Muppet Show Theme Song," and deliver a crushing commercial for the electric life they've lost, for the bubble baths and hot cocoa of a vanished world. As a wife relaxes from a long day under fluorescent lights, her husband offers her a chablis, "or mineral water, if you want a mineral water, with a squeeze of lemon in it, or lime. Or I could get you a grape Fanta. Or one of those Italian sodas you like. Or a cran-raspberry juice. Or a Diet Coke."

"With ice?" she asks.

"Of course with ice," he says. "Why not with ice? The freezer is chock full of ice."

Such escapism can only sustain humanity for so long. By the time we jump ahead to the third act, Diet Coke has been forgotten, and Matt Groening's comedy has been discarded. In a half-hour or so of driving, monotonous operetta, we hear the story of "Cape Feare" distilled to its purest essence, and refashioned as a creation myth for the new society.

 

Such escapism can only sustain humanity for so long.

 

Fleeing a nuclear disaster, a family takes to a houseboat, where their efforts to reinvent themselves are thwarted by the pursuit of an old foe. Sideshow Bob has been replaced by Mr. Burns, the embodiment of nuclear evil, whose half-life is longer than uranium's. The staging for this sequence is beautiful, as actors in gruesome Simpsons masks cavort around a crude depiction of a houseboat, but the music lets us down.

I don't mind that the third act isn't funny. In a country ravaged by nuclear fallout, there's no comedy in a bumbling nuclear safety inspector. But a play that quotes H.M.S Pinafore and name-drops the only-slightly-less-brilliant "A Streetcar Named Marge"—the history-making musical interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ play in The Simpsons—deserves stronger lyrics than:

I stand on the deck
I feel the boat sway
Twigs pass on the current
My old life floats away

The first drops of rain
The first hours of night
Our first moments of sorrow
Our first day of flight

Washburn is brilliant in the first two acts, as she molds "Cape Feare" to fit her well-realized dystopia, and by the third, she has earned the right to present the Simpsons as tragic archetypes of a fallen age. But having stripped these characters of their wit and joy, she fails to build them up again.

Bart Simpson is a trickster, as sly as Odysseus, and his anti-authoritarian streak makes him a perfect icon for a lawless age. It's easy to imagine him as an epic hero, and even easier to picture Mr. Burns as the embodiment of sinister toxicity. Instead, Washburn's Bart is just an ordinary kid, shrill and a little bit scared, and her Mr. Burns is less evil than the cartoon that inspired him, though he is more ready to kill. It should be Wagnerian, but fails to rise to the level of epic.  

But then, perhaps this play was never meant to be a second Götterdämmerung. Its best parts are the quiet ones—in the gathering around the campfire, the imitation of the sound a Diet Coke once made, and in the repetition of an old joke, half-remembered but with the same power to make you laugh.

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AN important point, the play inspires commentary, yea or nay and that is a good thing