Midway through the first act of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, one of the characters observes, “People are not competent. Can I just say that? People are not competent.”
Given that the character is one of a handful of survivors of a massive string of nuclear meltdowns that have completely shut down America’s power grid and killed god knows how many people, the understatement is painfully hilarious. During a mass pandemic massively exacerbated by the official idiocy and callousness of the last administration (not to mention several current governors and officials), it’s also enraging. (You can throw in the deadly failure of Texas’s power grid during last winter’s deep freeze to up the anger ante if you want.)
What do you do when you’ve survived the worst thing imaginable? You tell stories around a fire with whoever is left behind, which is where we find Washburn’s characters hanging out. Her beginning feels like an inversion of the end of the heartbreaking 1983 post-nuclear-attack film, Testament, where Jane Alexander’s Carol, a grieving mother, celebrates the birthday of her one surviving child by blowing out a single candle, saying that they should wish, “That we remember it all . . . the good and the awful.”
But Washburn mostly isn’t interested in earnest homiletics, and her characters are invested in remembering a story near and dear to the hearts of Gen Xers especially. They’re trying to recall all the details in the 1993 “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons (a riff on the 1962 Robert Mitchum film Cape Fear, remade with Robert De Niro in 1991), in which Sideshow Bob vows vengeance on Bart for testifying against him in court and getting him locked up.
That episode becomes a shared cultural narrative not just for the people we meet in the first act, but for the entire broken world of the play. By the second act, set seven years later, they’re performing not just Simpsons episodes, but also commercials and medleys of pop hits (“Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “Who Let the Dogs Out”) for money. They’re the postapocalyptic version of the band of unlikely entertainers (a blind juggler, one-legged dancers) in Peter Barnes’s 1985 Black Death comedy, Red Noses, who struggle to serve God as holy fools bringing laughter to the 14th-century masses while keeping body and soul together.
Toss in a country filled with guns, and the competition among Simpsons touring acts becomes a bit more fraught. By the third act, set 75 years later, the original “Cape Feare” story line has taken on the tone of an epic poem. It’s become (wait for it!)—Homeric. (And Mr. Burns has supplanted the evil clown; given the historical circumstances, the feckless and vengeful owner of a nuclear plant probably makes a more convincing villain.)
Theater Wit first produced Washburn’s pitch-black (almost literally in the first act—that “post-electric” subtitle isn’t fooling around and Heather Gilbert’s lighting design accentuates the gloom) 2012 comedy in 2015. You know: those innocent days before we really thought a reality show carnival barker with fascist aspirations might actually win the presidency, and long before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Through 11/14: Wed-Sat 7 PM, Sun 2:30 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $36-$54.
Jeremy Wechsler’s remount reopens the theater, which opened and closed its last production, Teenage Dick, on March 16, 2020. (That one performance was recorded and presented as a ticketed streaming show—the first of many to follow over the next 18 months.) Unsurprisingly, it feels particularly relevant and painful now, when we’re realizing how many of our fellow citizens would rather fuck around and find out than take the simplest steps to end a pandemic.
Being steeped in Simpsons lore certainly helps one appreciate the comic details, particularly in the makeshift costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka van der Ploeg. (The nesting blue plastic buckets comprising Marge’s wig in the second act are particularly cunning, but it’s all fabulously inventive.) But Washburn also isn’t interested in delivering a straight-up parody. One of the points of her play (which features terrific original songs by the late Michael Friedman) is that our collective memories both sustain us and twist us in knots.
The characters are literally fighting for ownership of the Simpsons stories in the second act, and increasingly darker tones of capitalistic competition creep up even in the midst of theatrical cooperation. “I think people are ready for status again,” says Jonah D. Winston’s Gibson, in talking about the “commercial” included in the show. (His character, like Sideshow Bob, happens to be well versed in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, which makes him a welcome addition for reasons that fans of “Cape Feare” will understand.)
But the third act does move closer to the earnestness of Testament and the death-defying joy of Red Noses. Bart (Leslie Ann Sheppard) fights bravely for his family’s honor against Andrew Jessop’s Burns. (The latter has Eileen Doan’s Itchy and Daniel Desmarais’s Scratchy as his henchcreatures.) A roll call of those who have left us includes Friedman (who died of AIDS-related complications in 2017—lest anyone think that pandemic has completely gone away), along with Chicago actor Johnny Lee Davenport and the legendary Organic Theater founder Stuart Gordon. Will Wilhelm’s Mrs. Krabappel is no longer a snarky teacher; instead, she’s a figure of choral compassion.
It’s a dizzyingly smart contraption, and Wechsler’s direction and stellar ensemble keep it all on point, balancing the poignant with the ridiculous, the quotidian with the existential. Ana Silva’s Maria, in the first act, recounts a long story of a man who went to a power plant with fuel, hoping to keep the rod-cooling generators going for just a few more days, only to realize that he was too late. “He said: ‘It’s not knowing, that’s the problem.’ He said: ‘I think I can handle anything, if I know what it is. I just can’t manage the dread.’”
No matter how well you feel you’ve managed the dread (and anger, and confusion) of this time, Mr. Burns offers both wry smart laughs and a sense that finding our tribe with a common narrative is one way through the darkness.