Playwright Anne Washburn sits at a table in a rehearsal room at Playwrights Horizons, looking pensive. Her mind is serious, her face grave. Suddenly, a tightly choreographed, rapid-fire medley starts: “All the single ladies!” calls Quincy Tyler Bernstine, before Sam Breslin Wright throws down a snippet of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” at which point Jennifer R. Morris karate-kicks the air to start “Eye of the Tiger.” Washburn permits herself a tiny smile.
The beloved group the Civilians is rehearsing Washburn’s postapocalyptic Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. The tripartite show looks at big issues, but it does so through a pop-culture lens, one somehow more realistic (and hilarious) than the genre’s customary grime-encrusted bleakness. The first act is set in the near future. Survivors gather around a campfire trying to recall an episode of The Simpsons, specifically “Cape Feare,” the spoof of Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller. The joke density is high, but it’s also a tale of young Bart being pursued by Sideshow Bob, the vengeful, floppy-haired clown. (A chain of retellings changes the villain to the titular Mr. Burns.) In the second act, the band has become a troupe bringing lo-fi entertainments (like the medley) to a story-starved population. By the third section—decades later—the retold episode has grown into something part pageant, part passion play.
Director Steve Cosson and the Civilians commissioned the piece from Washburn in 2008. “Our relationship with Anne goes back to the Civilians’ inception,” he says. She wrote her historical pastiche The Ladies for them, and the familial feeling in the room is palpable. Washburn began Mr. Burns by taping this very group of actors trying to recollect the episode. She knew that recording the Civilians would naturally give her, she says, “the delightfulness of misremembering, of capturing the sound of the game Telephone.”
Washburn marvels at the happy chance that they remembered "Cape Feare" best: “It’s a remake of a remake, so it’s an incredibly old story. At root, it’s the demon coming to destroy the family. The wolf is in the forest; nothing can help. And that right there is the central postapocalyptic fear. I think even if you have no notion of The Simpsons, an audience understands that.” Mr. Burns may seem like exquisite absurdism in one light, but as Washburn reminds us, “Everyone’s feeling anxious. We find ourselves almost soothing ourselves with drastic thinking. You’re on the subway, you’re bored. You think, So if it all goes down, how would I get out of the city?”
In the past, the versatile playwright has trained her precise intelligence on the Greeks (with an adaptation of Euripides’ Orestes), the gothic uncanny (Apparition) and the alienation of language (The Internationalist). If there’s a through line, it’s her penchant for terrifying comedy, for the pitch and roll of the uneasy stomach. In recent years, her pieces have premiered at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C. (which coproduced Mr. Burns), and at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival. But those who count her in the top ranks of playwrights have been impatient to see her in New York. Her last local show, The Small, ran at the 2010 Clubbed Thumb Summerworks festival, and we’ve been getting antsy.
Cosson, who has an air of preternatural calm, must have too. Washburn didn’t get around to generating a first draft until two years after the recording session, and the process has extended to fill the time since. “They weren’t allowed to go back and watch the episode for a long time, like, for years,” she recalls. “I needed to keep them pure so that I could harvest their brains.”
Still, she was worth the wait. “Anne’s interest in larger-canvas stories connects deeply to the Civilians’ mission of engaging society through theater,” says Cosson. “When artists imagine the future, they hardly ever imagine what culture and art are in that future. We assume, once we get down to survival, those things go away. But whatever happens to people, we tell stories, we make art. It’s how you survive.” Be warned, though. The delightful qualities of Mr. Burns may mess with your basic sense of self-preservation. “I have a funny feeling about the postapocalyptic world now,” Cosson says with a laugh. “If I get to sit by a fire telling Simpsons episodes with these people, that doesn’t really seem so bad.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is at Playwrights Horizons through Oct 6.