Why is it that I am so drawn to this powerful, murderously funny play? Maybe it is the third act, a capsule salmagundi of 250 years of musical theater and Greek tragedy, heavily salted by American pop culture.
Or perhaps it is the heart-breaking passage in the first act, in which survivors of an apocalypse (one that has disabled the electrical grid and scrambled nuclear power plants) exchange information about missing loved ones, paging through address books in ritualistic alphabetical order. As playwright Anne Washburn says in an interview with Tim Sanford,
I don’t think I thought about this directly when I was writing that scene but I was in New York on 9/11, and I was fascinated by the group-mind which followed the event…. People were desperate to seize on an order, and a way of doing things. I think I was also thinking of the fliers which went up, with the names and photos of the missing—for the first day or so they seemed like a practical idea, and they proliferated like mad. After the first day they continued to go up, but they felt like an increasingly desperate gesture, and like memorials, rather than a real way to find someone.
By comparison with the Washington version last year, in this production the characters feel a bit less actorly, more like the ordinary schlubs they are, who find themselves amid the broken shards of civilization, compelled to continue telling stories. Sam Breslin Wright, as the taciturn Sam of the first act, gives us a wonderful Mr. Burns in the third, with an evil whine that seems to come out of Jack Nicholson on meth. Matthew Maher is dead-on as Homer Simpson in the “How are you, Mr. Thompson?” scene, mastering Homer’s gormless eye take. And I hope someone finds a Diet Coke for Susannah Flood’s wired-up Susannah: she deserves it.
The orchestration for act 3 is more elaborate, to the best of my recollection. We hear a nice combo of piano, percussion, guitar, accordion, and (the too often overlooked) toy piano. But one wonders how the play’s survivors have keep all these instruments in good working order for 75 years.
Set designer Neil Patel fashions the “Cape Feare” houseboat out of a flat and some repurposed safety railing. The paint on the walls of the second act warehouse, seven years disused, is great: somewhat like Oscar Madison’s sandwiches, we can’t tell whether it’s green paint peeling to battleship gray and brown, or gray oxidizing to green. And the closing lighting effect, designed by Justin Townsend, is astonishing.
- Mr. Burns, a Post-electric Play, by Anne Washburn, music by Michael Friedman, directed by Steve Cosson, Playwrights Horizons, New York