‘Mr. Burns’ a clunky tale of post-apocalyptic rebirth

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The ancient Greeks had Homer, that epic poet of ancient Greece who gave us ‘The Iliad” and ‘The Odyssey.” Far more recent generations have had Homer Simpson, the blue-collar patriarch, and his rebellious son, Bart, whose existence initially emerged from the pen of cartoonist Matt Groening, and continues to be famously animated for television.

Now, in Anne Washburn’s painfully labored work, “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” which is receiving its Chicago debut in an ambitious Theater Wit production that cannot disguise the paucity of the material, the Simpson family and its various enemies have been envisioned as pivotal characters in the attempted cultural rebirth of a post-apocalyptic society. It’s enough to inspire any thoughtful person to start hoarding colored chalk so that come the great cataclysm, they might be able to find a cave wall and start drawing their lost dog or cat.

‘MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY’ Somewhat recommended When: Through March 1 Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $25-$70 Info: (773) 975-8150; theaterwit.org Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions

The premise of Washburn’s greatly overhyped play, which unquestionably owes much of its publicity to its “Simpson connection,” is that a nuclear disaster has wiped out a great swath of the United States and destroyed the electrical grid upon which so much of our lives, including most of our electronically recorded pop culture entertainment, depends. (Remember, Homer Simpson’s employer, the evil Mr. Burns, owns the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.)

In the show’s opening scene — which takes a long time to get moving — we meet a small band of survivors (played by Andrew Jessop, Leah Urzendowski, Christina Hall and Daniel Desmarais) who are gathered around a campfire, trying to reconstruct a particular “Simpsons” episode. But they have not entirely lost contact with “real life.” So when Gibson (the appealing Jeff Trainor), a stranger who has been walking through the ruins, arrives in their midst, they inquire about friends and relatives he might have seen along the way, reciting their names, ages and hometowns in a way that brings to mind the post-9/11 terrorist attack lists. In a charming moment, Gibson also recalls Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids” song,  but it just made me recall how much richer Hypocrites director Sean Graney’s variations on both those operetta-makers (and the ancient Greeks) have been in recent years.

The second act, seven years later, suggests how the rebirth of “culture” is progressing, as  the survivors have pieced together a bare-bones theater collective that riffs on commercials for now nearly non-existent products (Diet Coke, Chablis), and reconstructs TV dramas (with increasingly costly bits of lost dialogue sold on the black market). Trainor now plays husband to Lesli Ann Sheppard’s harried businesswoman wife — a woman who riffs on the joys of lunch at Pret A Manger. The full cast, including Hannah Gomez, finally breaks out into a pop song medley that ranges from “Who Let the Dogs Out?” to “Single Ladies.”

The third act takes place 75 years later (and believe me, it feels like real time), with a dirge-like medieval play led by Kelley Abell ceding to the survivors who are now afloat on a raft-like showboat where they more or less reenact the “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons” in operetta mode. (The score is by Michael Friedman, with lyrics by Washburn and music director Andrea Velis Simon part of a three-piece band.)) Bart, played by the tireless Sheppard, emerges as a hero.

Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is playful and energetic. And Joe Schermoly’s elaborately handcrafted sets (lit by Mike Durst), are enhanced by aptly cartoonish costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka van der Ploeg, who have made clever use of Dollar Store items.

Unquestionably, a great deal of work has been put into this production. But the play, which has the quality of a pop operetta based on footnotes, is painfully clunky. And while Washburn seems to be paying homage to the power (and essential electrical independence) of live theater, she hasn’t created a play worthy of that distinction.

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