I have been ruminating for over 24 hours about this play and how I would review it. Should I go full frontal and let you know exactly what I think or should I let you in gently. In the end, I have decided to start with the worse. Mr. Burns will most definitely be my clunker of the year without any doubt whatsoever and that’s saying a lot considering we are in early June. If I were generous, I would tell you that the play is an examination of how we tell stories and how these stories change over time. The problem with Mr. Burns, however, is that the way in which the author has chosen to examine that theme is supremely uninteresting.
If you are a fan of The Simpsons you might actually enjoy an hour-long scene where 6 characters retell an episode of the TV show in excruciating detail. There is a reason why I go to the theatre and one of those is that I don’t want to stay home and watch The Simpson or any other TV show for that matter. Worse than watching The Simpson, though, is watching people telling me about an episode that is, oh, so funny. Shame you weren’t there kind of thing. You know these people. We have all met them. Maybe it’s an American thing that stands for culture but this play was shockingly tedious. I don’t really care that the episode in question is supposed to be so clever because it makes allusions to the film Cape Fear or the Mikado.
The play starts in a post nuclear disaster world on the East coast of America where a bunch of 30ish people sit around a campfire in the woods trying to remember a TV episode. So the grid is down but they still have beers (lucky them) a couple of months after the original accident. Life as we know it is no more and everyone is weary of strangers and carries a gun (well I guess that’s nothing new in America).
The second scene takes us to the same six characters who have now formed an amateur “theatre” company and use pop culture to put on shows and must “buy” lines from people who remember them. Interestingly enough, it seems that a post nuclear disaster world has also remove mankind’s capacity for making new stories as everything they put on is only pre-digested pre-apocalyptic entertainment. The last scene shows us how people have mythologised the pre nuclear disaster world currently known by us by creating a new show (a musical no less), which includes bits of The Simpson, Eminem, the Spice Girls, The Night of the Hunter, Gilbert and Sullivan, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and more. If art in the post apocalyptic world looks anything like that, I think those who perish in the initial blast would be the lucky ones.
On a positive note, the actors were all excellent and some had fantastic voices (Demetri Goritsas, Adrian der Gregorian, Adey Grummet, Justine Mitchell, Wunmi Mosaku, Annabel Scholey, Michael Shaeffer, Jenna Russell).
Mr Burns, written by Anne Washburn and directed Robert Icke, comes to us via the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington where it was staged in 2012 and then transferred to the Playwrights Horizons in New York. In the US, the play received excellent reviews. Don’t ask me why. Sometimes, I honestly thought I was at my kids’ school play. At almost 3 hours, it will test anyone’s patience. Oh, and don’t wait for a punchline which I assume must come at the end of a Simpson episode…