The first act of Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” sounds a lot like conversations I had in high school in my friend Dan’s backyard over a few joints, half a dozen or so of us with nowhere to go because it’s the suburbs, inevitably rehashing our favorite moments from TV shows with varying degrees of theatrical panache.
At the core of human mythmaking, argues “Mr. Burns”—a self-consciously post-modern grab bag of a play currently being staged by Cohesion Theatre Company under the direction of Lance Bankerd—is collective nostalgia for popular culture. When we meet our survivors of some vague apocalyptic disaster (played by Jonathan Jacobs, Meghan Stanton, Hannah Fogler, Christine Wells, and Matthew Casella) we’re to assume that they’ve moved passed shock, trauma, horror, depravity, or any other plausible emotional response to the widespread destruction of planet Earth. We skip right to the part where they sit around a campfire with some beers going “oh and doesn’t he, doesn’t Sideshow Bob have ‘die Bart die’ tattooed on his chest?” (“Cape Feare” is the episode they’re describing). Occasionally a stray noise in the forest snaps them back into survivor mode, and they each tense up and grab their weapons.
The understated, downright banal writing and performances in this act are a reminder that life or death situations still unfold in real time—unlike on television or often, on the stage—with plenty of waiting, watching, and milling about.
At one point, the collaborative re-telling of an episode where Springfield Nuclear Power Plant goes haywire blurs hazily into a description of the actual apocalypse event itself, merging Simpsons with real life and juxtaposing the two styles of conversation: “What was it that Mr. Burns said to Smithers?” quickly becomes “Didn’t the power lines go down before the fire?”
I think then about the way “The Simpsons” (the actual show) deftly caricatures the borderline apocalyptic potential lurking under the surface of everyday American life, even in boom times. A perfect satire of the Reagan administration, the old “Simpsons” episodes manage to take on new life under Trump, when it feels like everything is perpetually on the edge of total destruction; Homer is every Trump appointee, sitting with his finger on the nuclear button and accountable only to an even more maliciously uninformed force (one imagines the president telling Jared to “release the hounds”).
In act two of “Mr. Burns,” seven years later, the same people have managed to survive and an informal society has rebuilt itself on the ruins of America. More importantly, though, our heroes have gathered their meager resources to stage a touring theatrical production of Simpsons episodes. The scripts are cobbled together around lines that the group buys from people who solicit them with pitches in a competitive marketplace with other theatre troupes. From what was once informal fandom, now a whole “Simpsons” economy has arisen.
Why their main concern is the quality of the show when lawless roving militias are robbing people at gunpoint and basic goods are in scarce supply (a long and granular back-and-forth about the nationwide supply of Diet Coke feels like off-brand Tarantino dialogue) is unclear. Digressions abound, and the rehearsal that takes up all of act two soon descends into a referential flurry of brand names, hot takes on wine, and other random factoids of life.
I want to read all this as a dig at the hyper-fetishization of pop culture, but “Mr. Burns” doesn’t quite achieve the critical distance or humor to feel like sly satire. Washburn’s commentary is just a bit obvious.
It’s now 75 years later and the “Cape Feare” episode has become the basis for a religious cult ritual—replete with robes, masks, beating drums, chanting, singing, and reverent lines like “if only we could return to Springfield, night glittered as bright as day” and “Cowabunga!” Amidst a manic and dissonant arrangement of the “Itchy and Scratchy” theme song, a masked Mr. Burns, aboard a yacht and festooned in a tattered green goblin suit, sings “we’ve got to rouse love, wake love up!” and any concern I had about not ‘getting it’ yielded to the frustrating fear that there was nothing to ‘get.’ Each character says their most recognizable thing in a stream of consciousness procession. “I’m Troy McClure, you may know me from . . .” and other stray catch phrases trail off into slam poetry-inflected references both biblical and pop-cultural, but all low-hanging (“Jacob!”, “Lot’s Wife!”, “The Kardashians!”)
Cohesion does everything humanly possible to enliven Washburn’s text, and the elaborate, hyper-saturated choreography that features everything from devotional dances to light saber battles is a real accomplishment. But “Mr. Burns” suffers from a script whose novel idea becomes absurd and incomprehensible—though that very well may be the point.