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After the control rods melt and the social contract expires and the grid goes dark for good, the people we cling to for familiarity and comfort won’t be the ones who can recite The Odyssey or King Lear or Death of a Salesman from memory. It’ll be the ones with the stickiest recall of, and greatest gift for recreating, the things we only experienced electronically: pop songs and commercials and, of course, that cave painting of America in its decadent phase, The Simpsons.
Anne Washburn’s brilliant new Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, brought to urgent life by a cast of the superb standard typical of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company productions, drops us into the aftermath of a nightmare scenario that has drastically winnowed our bloated herd. People carry lists of the living (Siri is no help with this) and no one travels unarmed. A group of hollow-eyed survivors fumbles for the intimacy of conversation without having to talk about the ambiguities and outright horrors that haunt their lives. But it’s, you know, funny.
Though Washburn reportedly considered other beloved sitcoms like Cheers or Friends as the frame for this exploration of how the oral tradition might return to primacy, The Simpsons is the perfect cultural peg, and not just because it’s had the longest half-life in the history of TV comedy. (Yes, it’s never again been as good as its early-’90s pinnacle, blah blah blah. If my abiding affection for the show is now largely nostalgic, well, that’s kind of Washburn’s point.) One score and three years ago, The Simpsons began as a parody of the entitlement and arrogance that swelled throughout the ’80s—of the things that’ll vanish in an eyeblink when the spores or the warheads or the zombies come. But almost before you could say, “Aye, Carumba!” it mutated into something much weirder and warmer than Doonesbury with overbites. Even its unrepentant evildoers—corner-cutting nuclear-plant owner Mr. Burns; jealous TV also-ran Sideshow Bob—were still too lovable to hate. Or indeed, to not quote endlessly.
In Washburn’s clever telling, Springfieldian scholars of tomorrow conflate Mr. Burns and Sideshow Bob, an inspired error that’s true to the way the play was initially conceived. Washburn and her cohorts in the “investigatory theatre” troupe The Civilians sequestered themselves in a fallout shelter—OK, it was an underground bank vault—and tried to perform Simpsons episodes from memory.
The script Washburn has arrived at four years later misremembers and combines characters and dialogue from the show with other familiar samples of cultural detritus in fascinating ways, which some of the show’s press has given away but I’ll withhold for you to discover. This is the type of play where the less you know going in, the better. (That said, some familiarity with the classic 1993 Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” a send-up of Martin Scorsese’s face-chewy 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, will benefit you.)
As Gibson, a solo traveler who wanders into the others’ camp early in the show, Chris Genebach is as adept as he was in Studio Theatre’s recent The Big Meal at conveying loss and the return of hope over time. Woolly regular Kimberly Gilbert brings her reliable energy and comic poise to her role, and also makes an assured debut as a singer after being a consistently delightful presence on D.C. stages for years. Erika Rose and Jenna Sokolowski have an utterly believable-in-context debate in Act 2 on whether it’s realism or escapism that makes us feel free to laugh, and Rose even has a line about the value of commercials (after the economy has collapsed, remember) that rivals in insight anything we’ve heard Don Draper say.
I’m reluctant to even comment on Misha Kachman’s canny set or on Michael Friedman’s original (though familiar) score, other than to say the latter scrambles familiar ingredients with the same playfulness and invention as did another document from the year The Simpsons hit the airwaves, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It’s widely accepted that the failure of copyright law to catch up to the digital age would make that record unreleasable today. Here’s hoping the Fox Corporation doesn’t do anything to try to prevent Mr. Burns from finding the wide audience it deserves. Simply put, it’s a perfectly cromulent hit.