For all its skewering of propriety, parodying of the family, and sending up of education, religion, and pretty much everything else contemporary America holds dear, in many circles it’s hard to go wrong referencing The Simpsons. Its (mostly) deft satire over the decades has disarmed and tickled even those who would bristle at, say, a storyline centering around a father of three deciding that he’ll force his son to work alongside him as a circus carny (the episode titled “Bart Carny”).
Presumably this is why playwright Anne Washburn built Mr. Burns, a post-electric play around memories of the iconic TV series—and it’s the reason the show earns whatever ephemeral appeal it manages to generate in early scenes. We find a group of characters gathered around a fire trying to remember dialogue from a bygone Simpsons episode while clutching weapons and peering into the darkness around them. Turns out we’re in a post-Apocalyptic scenario, with our protagonists among the few remaining alive from the world we know today.
We’re in well-trodden territory here—the stuff of novels by Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, not to mention The Road and The Walking Dead. Yet all of the aforementioned works had the distinct advantage of actual characters exhibiting personalities and behavior in which a readership or audience could conceivably invest. Here we have a static, plodding semi-drama in which the actors unconvincingly read from rolls of survivors until no one recognizes anyone else’s name and matters fizzle.
In the next scene, it’s years later and we find ourselves observing—no kidding—a theater troupe specializing in Simpsons episodes and recreations of commercials. So it seems that the most pressing matter after the end of civilization is the inside story of a community theater and how it deals with its competition. I’ve rarely seen a more blatant example of theater about theater coming across as tone deaf, wildly pointless, and with a shock ending to the scene that is effectively a dramatic flag of artistic surrender.
Then there’s what comes after the intermission, when a show until now at least well performed with skill and engagement by a talented cast goes entirely off the rails. The general gist is that we’re watching a musical with Simpsons elements that hinges on quasi-classical elements of tragedy, the afterlife, and the hero’s journey. Except that its done with a shockingly static staging, flat and lazy lyrics, and an overpowering sense that we’ve just spent well over two hours watching a theatrical thought exercise, at most a 45-minute short, stretched out until it gives out a discordant moan like a distressed guitar string.
Mr. Burns is a show that, for those inexperienced in unconventional theater, might leave them wondering if they lacked the sophistication to understand what they’ve just seen. Short answer: no. This time out, it’s safe to heap the blame entirely upon the stage itself.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play runs at the Guthrie Theater through May 9. Tickets.