Here’s a distressing question: Seventysomething years after the collapse of civilization, will we even remember “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Or, for that matter, Who Shot Mr. Burns? And will we blame them for what happened next? In Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play — a witty, wistful, walloping coda to our summer of gaseous blockbuster apocalypse — the question of what endures after the End is answered not by peering into the murky future, but by reading the tea leaves of recent popular culture and asking if today’s high-schlock nostalgia becomes tomorrow’s fundamental mythology, and perhaps even tomorrow’s fundamental morality.
Playwright Anne Washburn — working in close collaboration with director Steve Cosson, composer Michael Friedman, and a tight-knit ensemble of Off Broadway mainstays (including Matthew Maher, Colleen Werthmann, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine) — draws from familiar conventions of dystopic-postapocalyptic fiction: A vague plague has wiped out modern civilization, and the dominoes quickly fall, with unattended, ticking-time-bomb nuclear reactors playing a special accelerative role in the unraveling of society. Mass media, too, are wrecked. The oral tradition, in Riddley Walker fashion, quickly kicks back in, history and fiction intermingle, and gloriously mangled new scriptures begin to take shape: Not from church doctrine or wisdom tales or just-so stories this time, but from the parched bones of the old media magisterium, from television, movies, music, the memes whose long half-lives make them as stubbornly ineradicable (and as infinitely mutable) as radioactivity and toxicity. (One of these artifacts, fittingly, is Britney Spears’s “Toxic.”) Survivors, mostly strangers to one another, sit around campfires, entertaining and distracting each other by trying to recall shared pancultural experiences — and this, naturally, boils down to Simpsons episodes.
Washburn, God bless her, is clearly a member of my voided, 1.0 generation, the e-kids who weren’t quite the iKids, the cannon-fodder wave that went just ahead of the feared and revered millennials. Our media, and therefore our world, peaked in 1999 and was obliterated on September 11. From the perspective of that generation, The Simpsons already buried us all. It was our epitaph even in the nineties, our pre-Zuckerberg peak, before the Internet-at-large usurped its role as mass mausoleum of culture and satiric clearinghouse of the tragic American absurd. I guess what I’m saying is, for consumers of a certain age, the End’s already come and gone; we’re left to relitigate our expired relevancy with shows like Community. And — if we’re jonesing for a medium even creakier than television — plays like Mr. Burns.
Not that there’s another play like Mr. Burns. It’s sui generis. (Which isn’t to say it’s perfect: Its flabby middle act could use some tightening, to better dramatize Washburn’s talky deepthink.) We follow a ragtag band whose shared recollection of the “Cape Feare” episode — the one where Sideshow Bob gets paroled from prison and comes after Bart — operates first as comfort, then as commerce. (Our latter-day pageant-wagon players charge admission to nostalgic fellow survivors and complain about rival companies who’ve managed to assemble other famous eps: “It kills me they’ve got Streetcar,” grumbles one actor about a rival troupe.) There are three acts: the immediate aftermath (featuring dialogue culled from the actors’ actual real-time attempts to recall “Cape Feare”), seven years later (culture reborn as nostalgia), and the distant future, where the story’s become a passion play.
“Cape Feare” makes the perfect narrative vessel. The episode, besides being a comedy classic (the rakes! the cactus patch! “No one who speaks German could be an evil man!”), is a perfect palimpsest: It’s a parody of a remake of a Hitchcock knockoff of a film based on a book, with digressions into Night of the Hunter and Gilbert & Sullivan — a dog’s breakfast of culture, yet all of a piece. (It’s not a link farm of mere references, in other words. That phase of comedy was yet to come.) Sideshow Bob, more antihero than villain, is a homicidal snob and prig; Bart, his nemesis and prey, is a lowborn trickster scamp risen from the swamp of media dreck.
But by the end of the show, Bob’s faded from the story entirely. (Which is perfect. I mean, who’s lighting candles for William F. Buckley these days, anyway? Aside from David Brooks?) The new villain is Mr. Burns, avatar of the old-energy economy that’s dimly blamed for the meltdown of the old order. Burns, now a radioactive monster flanked by twin demons Itchy and Scratchy, takes center stage for the conclusion, which is staged in apparent candlelight, in V-effected Simpsons masks (the mildly terrifying creations of Sam Hill). It’s a musical coup that’s equal parts Brecht and Bart, Homer and the other Homer: a medley-mosaic of an operetta brilliantly agglomerated by Friedman, where Bernard Hermann jousts with Ricky Martin, and all brows, high- and low-, contract into an enduring unibrow. “Our virtues did not save us,” the company sings, to the tune of Bob’s beloved G&S number “For He Is an Englishman,” “And our brains only waylaid us. But though swept from our foundations / Through our steely endurations / O we remain American!” The question of exactly what will remain remains, of course. Because like all dystopic fantasies, Mr. Burns isn’t really about the future at all, but the past that won’t let us go.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is at Playwrights Horizons through October 20.