Should the apocalypse ever occur, forget the carefully curated archives at the Library of Congress or those time capsules everyone’s mom buried in the backyard. They’ll be long gone, leaving us with nothing but the vestiges of our fallible memories to cling to. So instead of Hamlet, or Ulysses, or Picasso, we’ll be left to pass down tales of Lady Gaga, Pret à Manger, and The Simpsons to future generations.
So says Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, currently having its world premiere run at Woolly Mammoth. In Anne Washburn’s post-Armageddon world, survivors pass the hours by trying to recall the nuances of their favorite TV episodes. Sitting on a dirty couch around a fire, in a manner that isn’t a million miles away from the gag sequence The Simpsons employs in the opening credits, Matt (Steve Rosen) entertains the others with his Homer impression while he recalls the plot of the 1993 episode “Cape Feare” (in case you’re not familiar with the oeuvre, it’s the one in which Sideshow Bob plots to kill Bart in a parody of the similarly titled 1962 Robert Mitchum film).
The triviality of the discussion is entertaining enough to watch, but the characters hint that something unspeakably awful has happened, and that danger still lurks at every corner. Jenny (Kimberly Gilbert) grasps her bag close to her, as if prepared to leave at any moment. The arrival of Gibson (Chris Genebach) breaks up the Simpsons recapping: The five assembled onstage whip out guns and pat him down, before pulling out their lists of survivors they’ve encountered, reciting ten names they’re each hoping for news of in what seems like a weary, pointless process.
Director Steve Cosson is founding artistic director of the New York documentary theater troupe the Civilians, and his preoccupation with storytelling shines through. Characters reveal fragments of what’s happened to them, but the overall picture remains murky; we learn that only around a million Americans have survived, and most nuclear plants have been destroyed, with fatal consequences. Act two is set seven years later, with the same motley crew of survivors having formed a theater troupe. They rehearse an episode of (you guessed it) The Simpsons, complete with devised commercial breaks—only without electricity or other mod cons, they’re forced to improvise when it comes to special effects (one actor ingeniously uses chalk-covered erasers to create the effect of steam from a bubble bath).
The moral of Mr. Burns is both heartening and dismaying: On the one hand, people will do anything for culture, but on the other hand, it might not be the kind of culture you’d hope would endure, cockroach-like, after a nuclear holocaust. The survivors cling to relics from their former lives—from the “Three Little Maids” number from The Mikado to the 2000 Baha Men hit “Who Let the Dogs Out?”—and the ability to remember random things becomes a kind of currency, with the troupe paying different civilians for various lines of prose. “Things aren’t funny when they’re true,” says one character of the plays they choose to present. “They’re awful.” So they offer Simpsons episodes and mashups of Ricky Martin and Eminem instead.
Through a prism of pop culture references and Kelsey Grammer impressions, Washburn reveals our primal human need for entertainment, as well as the hope seemingly banal works can offer. Bart’s ability to outsmart Sideshow Bob becomes a beacon of inspiration for those in despair, accompanied by the catchy lyrics from “Edge of Glory.” And although the efficacy of such oral traditions might be iffy at best, it’s a way to prove that humankind endures, even if a hammily melodramatic reenactment of a 1993 cartoon is the result.
Washburn, whose Orestes, a Tragic Romp also debuted in Washington at the Folger in 2010, has proved she has the chops to fuse high and low culture, revealing weighty truths through seemingly frivolous means. Cosson’s cast is universally strong, and surprisingly adept at the song and dance numbers. The one awkward note seems to be the costumes—in the first scene, Gilbert sports shiny leather boots and a clean suede jacket that seem too pristine for a refugee. But designer Frank Labovitz shows ingenuity in his attempts to turn the cast into Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and company. If culture’s all that endures the end of times, it’s hard not to hope this show’s impact does the same.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is at Woolly Mammoth through July 1. Running time is two hours and 15 minutes. Tickets ($30 to $65) are available through Woolly’s website.