One of the weirdest, funniest and most haunting plays of the new season can be found over on West 42nd Street, where Playwrights Horizons is staging Anne Washburn's deliriously dark Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Set not long after America's electrical grid collapses and countless nuclear power plants experience radioactive meltdowns, the story concerns a devastated culture's desperate need for stories. In particular,
The Simpsons episode parodying the film(s) Cape Fear takes on a sort of totemic importance, being retold orally among survivors for diversion and reenacted in increasingly elaborate DIY performances.
"This intoxicating and sobering vision of an American future, set during a day-after-tomorrow apocalypse, isn’t just some giddy head trip, either. It has depths of feeling to match its breadth of imagination," critic Ben Brantley writes in his NY Times review. "At the end of Steve Cosson’s vertiginous production, which opened on Sunday night at Playwrights Horizons, you’re likely to feel both exhausted and exhilarated from all the layers of time and thought you’ve traveled through." Indeed, it's a hell of a trip, and the third act, a sort of highly embellished musical inspired by Simpsons archetypes, is very weird, in a good way.
Last week we spoke with playwright Anne Washburn about the show, which has been extended through October 20th.
Where on earth did the idea for this come from? It's sort of a complicated multi-part answer unfortunately. It was an idea that I'd had for a long time, to take a TV show and push its past the apocalypse and see what happened to it. And it was one of those ideas that I didn't think I'd ever actually end up doing anything with because I knew that I wanted to start it off with a group of people remembering it, and I knew I wanted to use a group of real actors for it. I knew it would take more than a day, so getting people together for that long was tough.
So I had this idea that I wanted to do this, and I don't remember how I hit on The Simpsons. I was sort of thinking Friends or Cheers, or even MASH, or any show that had had a long term viewership and was much beloved and cheerful, and at some point I decided on The Simpsons. Then I was approached by Steve Cosson at The Civilians, which is this investigative theater troupe which I am a founding member of, to see if we wanted to apply for a commission. So we applied with this idea, got the commission, and took this group from The Civilians into a bank vault deep underneath Wall Street, which was a free rehearsal space that was being passed around that summer.
So we stuck them in this bank vault for a week and we asked them to remember Simpsons episodes, and the one they have the best memory of was "Cape Feare." So when the play starts, there's this group of people sitting around a campfire trying to remember, and all of the Simpsons-recalling material comes from that session. And with the exception of Susanna Flood, who is replacing someone who had a scheduling conflict and couldn't be in the show, those are their words. I mean obviously I edited a lot, but it began with them.
And did they know where you were going with this, what the overall concept was? No; well they knew it was The Simpsons past the apocalypse.
Are you a big Simpsons fan yourself? No I'm not an enormous fan. I mean, I am a Simpsons fan but in a kind of passive way; you know I ended up watching a lot reruns of it and really enjoying it. But I don't know if I've watched all the important episodes and I couldn't win a trivia contest. I always thought it was a really clever and fun show. But I'm not a fanatic and also I have a terrible, terrible memory.
Did anybody in this process actually go and watch it or was that forbidden? That was forbidden. I wanted them to have to do it really strictly from memory, and when I was writing it, I thought, "Oh I won't go look at that episode, either." And then I was working on it, and I started from the transcript material, and there's a line that Matt is not able to recall, and it's this really funny line, and I thought, "Oh, that's fine, we'll never know, that will be a haunting thing throughout this play that we never know, and at some point I realized, "No I really need to find out that line," so I cheated and I watched the episode.
Is it that Sideshow Bob line? Yes, that Sideshow Bob line, about how he'll stay away forever. And then a month later I was talking with a friend and describing this process, and I said, "And he says this line, and he can't remember." And the friend said, "Oh yes! What [Sideshow Bob] says is this!" And he totally supplied the line, and I thought, "Oh I didn't even need to go back, I should have just gone out into the wild and spoken to people and I could probably have pulled it together from that."
Well it worked out to be a really fitting episode I think. It's kind of perfect, you know, the story that the movies [Cape Fear] tell really feels like a really old, really primitive story, and The Simpsons' take on it is hilarious. But it still retains that whole feeling of helplessness, being helpless in face of someone else's unyielding desire to kill you, and nobody can protect you and nobody can stop it, and it's kind of on you.
And in a weird way The Simpsons episode is even scarier because in the original it's this predator and he's coming after Nick Nolte or Gregory Peck. But in both of of the movies, the protagonist is this guy who is sort of a lawyer and an upstanding guy and a member of the community, and all of these trappings of civilization that protagonists always rely on to protect themselves can't protect them. And so it ends up in the swamps, and the deal with the original movies is that they have to give up their civilized ways and they have to take Cady on man to man, no holds barred, and it becomes this deep test of manhood. They have to unleash the primitive being within themselves in order to take on this primitive being that comes after them, and it's kind of disturbing.
But in The Simpsons episode, Bart is really a child, and he can't take on Sideshow Bob by himself. He succeeds by stalling Sideshow Bob until they run into the Springfield Police completely by accident, I think they're at a brothel, and then the Springfield police are able to apprehend him and take him away. So there is this sense in The Simpsons that it's even scarier.
Your play taps into this very common fear, that our whole system could collapse and we are totally unprepared. The play takes that premise seriously, but is that something you think about? How much does that keep you up at night? It doesn't keep me up at night so much, but societies collapse. As long as there have been civilizations and societies they have collapsed. And sometimes it's taken a long time and been very gentle and gradual and sometimes its been really quick. And I don't think we're immune to that at all. I'm not saying, "Oh this is going to happen we have to do something," but there's nothing that says it can't happen, and if it were to happen, which it could, then we're in no way prepared for that.
Do you have a "go bag"? I don't have a go bag; I really should since I've spent so much time on this, since I started working on this play, but I don't have a go bag. I have some cans of black beans that I have in my cupboard that I sort of earmarked with the idea that they would hold me for a couple days.
How specific were you in your research of the different nuclear power plants and their locations in the first act, and stuff like that? I talked with two different nuclear scientists who I know didn't want to be named, and we discussed how long it would take to safely stow away a nuclear power plant, and what's the likelihood that if you take a plant offline and you don't have the time to properly stow it, that you would get an explosion which would send plumes for hundreds of miles rather than simply just sitting there and festering the radioactive waste on itself.
So that part of the play was true, where they were trying to figure out how long the radioactive rods needed to be cooled? That's what I was told. You have two options if you want to take a plant offline. You take a plant offline, and once it's offline if you have a cooling pool and electricity for months at least, you're fine. But if you know electricity is going out and you need to actually dismantle the plant and you know you're going to lose electricity, what you do—and I love using these terms like I know what I'm saying—you dry-cask the rods, which is to say you put them into heavy concrete containers on site and they melt down like crazy. But it's contained, it doesn't explode.
But to do that it literally does take weeks and hundreds of trained people. I mean just look at Fukushima; that was a power loss caused by the tsunami and I mean obviously the government was very busy cleaning up all sorts of things, but there were plenty of people and plenty of personnel and everyone understood there was a problem and applied themselves to it, but still you had the explosion, you had loss of radioactive matter, you have ground water going into the ocean right now. It's a completely functioning civilized country and they haven't been able to take care of this rogue reactor. It's just complex under any circumstances, and how many does the U.S. have, I think they have 112.
112 nuclear plants in America? Yeah. And if you have a time where things get really dicey civilly and people are really distracted—and that does happen—as it gets more interwoven and it gets more dependent on the Internet... it all seems frightening to me. But anyhow, with the play the whole nuclear thing is not the point, obviously, it's more of the condition of it, although I guess I would call it a sort of highlighted condition because it strikes me as complex and a difficulty.
What do you think the point of the play is? Oh Lord I don't know, it has a bunch of good points. I think it's about storytelling, I think it's about how the story is retold, and how it's supposed to reflect who we are and also helps to create who we are, both as individuals and as a community. I would say if I were to boil it down it's something sort of like that.
That's a good way to put it. I loved the last act, which jumps 75 years into the future, and the story of the Simpsons has been boiled down to these archetypes, represented by this highbrow weird vision... it was just so strange! So you wrote that in collaboration with the guy [Michael Friedman] who did the music right? The first few acts were pretty much originally written. I mean there was rewriting and fluffing. The third act was hard; I've never written a musical drama before, and the rules are very different. So I wrote it, Michael wrote the music, and then we had a bunch of workshops, in which we all tried to work on how to best tell a story with words and music, and movement as well.
So I wrote a song that we put in and took out, we truncated things. Both Michael and Steve Cosson, the director, would chip in dramaturgically. We were just trying to work out how to tell this story, and also address the question of tone, although weirdly we didn't discuss it too much in terms of tone. It's serious, and then very goofy, and then very serious again, and that was something that seemed to naturally evolve. We all got to be pretty much on the same page on how we wanted that to work, but it took a lot of arguments [laughs].
What was the biggest argument? There were never major arguments, it was just that we'd work on something for a while, we'd feel like it didn't work, we'd get cranky and we'd snap at each other.
But in the Second Act, where the actors are arguing, did that stem from how that was coming together? Yes, maybe perhaps, we'd all storm off in different directions and come back in twenty minutes and someone would have a really great idea.
Have you heard any feedback from any of the people who actually do The Simpsons? We have, sort of increasingly. The first feedback we got was John Vitti, the man who wrote the episode. He came to see it in D.C. and really liked it; he made a brief reference to it being an odd experience, which I can't even imagine how odd and surreal it was for him. I mean to me that was in a weird way the most delightful thing that I could provide a moment of deep surreality to another human being.
The show runner who was part of the series at the time, Mike Reiss, came to see it a couple of weeks ago, and they've been really supportive, they've been really game, and I think it's surreal for them in a way, but I think it's flattering as well. For one thing, it's about The Simpsons becoming a cornerstone of the culture, but it is the longest running TV program and it's on postage stamps and it's been going on for so long and spinning itself in so many different ways that I think they see this as a sort of logical place for it to go; I mean it's strange and a little surreal but I don't think it breaks the underlying logic of the series.
Have you had any feedback from Simpsons fans, have any obsessive Simpson's nerds come to see it? On two occasions someone has come to the theater dressed totally in Simpson's regalia with T-shirts and buttons, and each time that person left at the intermission, so it may not actually be for very deep Simpsons fans.
And on the flip side of that, have you had any bewildered feedback from any subscribers... of a certain age? Yeah, absolutely, we've had the two kinds of feedback. I've definitely heard from a lot of people who have said, "I don't watch The Simpsons," but the cool thing is that even people who feel they don't know anything about The Simpsons know something. There's no one in America who doesn't know what Homer and Marge look like, and they know that there's this child Bart and maybe they know there's this other child Lisa; people know more than they think they know.
But I've absolutely heard people who have said "I don't know anything about The Simpsons, but I felt I totally understood the play and totally loved it," and I have also heard—though not as much obviously because people don't come up and tell me that they feel this way—but I certainly heard of other people who don't know about The Simpsons and felt excluded from it or felt that it wasn't relatable to them.
But one thing we did work on was that we really wanted to make the first act something where if you paid attention you would have the information you needed and you wouldn't have had to watch the episode or even know about The Simpsons. So yeah, it definitely cuts both ways. For some people it's not at all a problem and in a weird way I think it's sort of a joy because The Simpsons is this weird thing that's just floating around, and they don't know anything about it and suddenly they kind of have a way into it. I think it's kind of like being a tourist.
But for other people it's a barrier, and I wish I knew what the distinction was and if there was a way to alleviate that. But I guess that there is bound to be a clump of people for whom, I mean there's a clump of people who love The Simpsons who hate the play, but it doesn't work for everyone, it doesn't appeal to everyone. And no play does, but sometimes I wonder if there is some group of people who feel they don't have an "in" to it who do actually, who feel they're being excluded or being kept out of an inside joke and they don't need to feel that way.
One day, when we have electronic monitoring of theater seats and can do a complete readout of everyone's vital signs, we'll be able to answer these questions.