NEW YORK — The rapturous reception here for Anne Washburn’s dazzling “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” is not only further validation of the ingenuity of an exciting young dramatist. It also affirms the play-building acumen of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and by extension gives a boost to the new-play movement taking hold in Washington.
Woolly audiences were the first to be exposed to “Mr. Burns,” in the fiendishly clever production directed in the spring of 2012 by Steve Cosson, a native of Potomac and artistic director of the Brooklyn investigatory theater group the Civilians.
Cosson is back in the director’s seat for the production at Playwrights Horizons. And though the cast is completely different, filled now with members of Cosson’s troupe, the result is the same: a breathtaking, brain-teasing evening that asks you to consider how pop culture is embraced, metabolized and reinterpreted through the filters of time and cataclysmic events.
A theater company’s most crucial obligation is, of course, to its own patrons. In fulfilling that responsibility, however, it performs other vital services, one of them being — for a nurturer of contemporary work such as Woolly — some nudging forward of the entire art form. Finding and supporting playwrights who have the potential for broader impact are arduous tasks, involving a lot of trial and error and faith and patience. But as Woolly and other companies around town have demonstrated, breakthroughs can happen. When they do, the local theater options are enriched and the city’s reputation is burnished.
With very early productions of plays such as “Clybourne Park” — at Woolly in 2010 and the Pulitzer Prize winner the following year — and world premieres such as Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Really Really” at Signature Theatre last year, theaters in and around D.C. are revealing renewed strength in honing new plays that can have a successful afterlife. (Woolly in earlier days was critical to the careers of dramatists such as Nicky Silver and Doug Wright, the latter an eventual Pulitzer winner for “I Am My Own Wife.”)
“Mr. Burns” is the latest example, and in the wake of glowing reviews — “I look forward to remembering it for a long, long time,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times — the play will doubtless begin to materialize on the schedules of theaters all over the place. The piece is at once an affectionate tribute to a beloved pop institution, “The Simpsons”; a wisdom-laced illustration of the basic human need for stories; and a diabolically inventive game of telephone.
The play opens somewhere on the East Coast in the near future, after some sort of technological mega-disaster has drained the power supply and caused meltdowns at nuclear plants. We are in the encampment of a group of survivors — among the few hundred thousand Americans still alive — who, subsisting in a world in which electronics are useless, entertain one another by trying to remember the plot of a particular “Simpsons” episode.
That would be the “Cape Feare” episode, a parody of, among other things, the 1991 movie thriller “Cape Fear” with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte, that was in turn a remake of the 1962 original film of the same title with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. In their hilariously elaborate efforts to reconstruct the episode — there’s not much else to do in this hollow future — no person’s memory is entirely trustworthy. To recover the tale, it takes a devastated village. (As a mournful counterpoint, the survivors fill personal journals with names of all the people they encounter, a record demanding far more than memory.)
The notion of multiple iterations of a single story is a recurring theme all through “Mr. Burns.” As the decades wear on, the “Cape Feare” episode assumes more and more cultural significance, first as a source of live entertainment, performed by itinerant theater troupes. As more time passes, and the events surrounding the epic cataclysm become enshrouded in myth, the episode and “Simpsons” characters acquire totemic weight. The evening culminates in what amounts to some kind of bizarre approximation of a Broadway show, in which Homer and Marge, Bart and Mr. Burns have metamorphosed into masked allegorical figures, hybrids fused from bits of the cartoon and the traumatic effects of the apocalypse.
The scrupulous manner in which Washburn — vitally assisted by composer Michael Friedman — works out the changes over time in the way the episode is recalled and interpreted approaches the mind-blowing. Yes, you’re probably better off knowing a little something of the way a “Simpsons” episode unfolds, as well perhaps as the plot of “Cape Fear,” to derive maximum pleasure from “Mr. Burns.” On not many occasions would I advocate a little homework before seeing a play. On this one, it’s well worth it.
In the design elements, Cosson has for Playwrights closely replicated the work he did at Woolly. In emotional texture, he has gone a little deeper. The eight-member cast, one more actor than in the Woolly version, displays its range grandly, poignantly illuminating the terror of the time just after the disaster, and later on embodying the Simpsons themselves with agility and verve.
Those who admired “Mr. Burns” at Woolly can treat themselves to the handiwork of Washburn, Friedman and Cosson again and feel quite at home — maybe even a bit like proud parents.
by Anne Washburn. Directed by Steve Cosson. Music, Michael Friedman; set, Neil Patel; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Ken Travis; masks and wigs, Sam Hill. With Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Sam Breslin Wright, Colleen Werthmann, Jennifer R. Morris, Nedra McClyde. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 20 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. New York. Call 212-279-4200 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.