Sunday, 1 September 2013

Anne Washburn's MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at Playwrights Horizons

     OK, here's a generalization -- there's a basic problem with plays built on concepts rather than characters and narrative. Given that there is no particular reason to care about the people on stage beyond their role as carriers of the play's idea or gimmick, the play can become tiresome once we "get" what's going on. Everything depends on the execution, which has to be constantly interesting and surprising. Regina Taylor's stop.reset., reviewed in my last entry, balanced a challenging, important question about the clash between past and present modes of transmission of information and memories with interesting characters. The same cannot be said of Anne Washburn's clever but only fitfully absorbing MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, which went on far too long for its content.
      The play begins with five people sitting around a fire recounting at great length an episode of THE SIMPSONS. Now I have only watched THE SIMPSONS a few times in my life, so watching this scene go on and on reminded me of being at a party from hell where stoned people try to recount at great length a movie or tv episode you haven't seen or tell the same joke over and over. TIme seems to stop. About ten minutes into this, you realize that one guy is armed and guarding this small encampment. Another person enters and the drama comes to life. We discover that there has been a series of meltdowns of nuclear power plants that have caused massive radioactive poisoning and a total loss of electric power. Washburn wisely gives only sketchy exposition: this is, after all, familiar disaster movie territory. In this new wasteland, people try to discover who might still be alive. They also try to keep a semblance of culture going by piecing together their memories of episodes of THE SIMPSONS and movies like CAPE FEAR and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. The newcomer can only sing bits of Gilbert and Sullivan, but his impromptu recital is appreciated by the others. In a post-electric world, any form of entertainment is welcome.
     The second scene takes place seven years later. The group we met in the first scene seem to have become a sort of theatre troupe rehearsing bits of sitcoms (THE SIMPSONS, of course), medleys of past top 40 hits and "commercials" that offer a nostalgic picture of the past when there were hot baths and chilled chablis. In this new world, one has to pay (with what currency?) for others' memories of moments from sitcoms. There also seems to be a rivalry between performing troupes that can lead to violence. Of course, performances have to take place in the daytime when there is light. So the insatiable hunger for entertainment has survived in a bizarre form in post-electric America.
      In the final scene, we are seventy-five years farther into the future where a troupe is presenting a musical made up of bits of THE SIMPSONS episode that was previously recounted. Original music has been mixed with bits of Gilbert and Sullivan. By this time, this collage of memories of past entertainment have been remolded into a new work of art.\ with fairly elaborate scenery. This verse drama with songs turns THE SIMPSONS into a recounting of the past disaster and an artistic embodiment of the terror of living in this new radioactive world. Mr. Burns, the sometimes sinister SIMPSONS character becomes the embodiment of all the terrors of living in this new society. Yet at its finale, this musical becomes an unintentional parody of the traditional Broadway musical's expression of optimism and self-assertion and ends with a patriotic hymn to the music of Arthur Sullivan. Popular art survives, but hasn't changed much.
      The show only came to life in the musical moments, particularly the Top 40 medley in the second scene. The musical that filled the final scene went on too long and the music (Michael Friedman) was more awful than the worst Broadway score (well, maybe not as bad as the score for ONCE). Perhaps its eerie tunelessness was intentional, but if so the joke wore very thin over half and hour.
      Throughout the cast did what it had to do well enough, but since they had no characters to play, they seemed somewhat adrift. Steve Cosson's direction seems listless.
       MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY offers a celebration of the human need to make theatre even in a terrible world, yet the theatre that is created is still dependent on conventions of television and the commercial theatre. THE SIMPSONS moves from memory to nostalgia to the basis for a work of art that says something about the past and present of the people performing it and watching it. However, since the creators of MR. BURNS seem to feel superior to the conventions of the Broadway musical, they offer a dark vision of the future of human existence and of art in a post-electric world.
      Yes, MR BURNS is clever, but it is far too long. Maybe it will get more of a sense of pace (this was an early preview), but the script is in desperate need of editing. I can't help thinking it would be better if it were the length of a SIMPSONS episode. I kept wanting to scream, "I get it. Move on already!"
MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY. Playwrights Horizons. August 31, 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment