September 21, 2013

Head Trips with Bart Simpson and Bernie Madoff

You don’t have to love a show to admire it.  At least that’s how I’m feeling about two of the shows that have kicked off this new fall season.

The first I saw was A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff, which hasn’t gotten much love—or respect—from the professional critics. The second is Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which received a big wet kiss from the New York Times’ Ben Brantley (click here to see his review).
The Madoff play, now running at Atlantic Stage 2 through Sept. 28, imagines the afterlife of the financier who swindled millions in a Ponzi scheme and it deals with the big questions of evil and sin, punishment and redemption. Mr. Burns, named for a character from the long-running animated TV series “The Simpsons” and now at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 20, takes ambitious aim at the role that culture, particularly the theater, plays in civilizing a society. 
Both riff off Medieval texts (Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” respectively) and both dare their audiences to sit up and engage in the heady debates that are being waged onstage.
That’s particularly true of Mr. Burns, which opens with a group of people huddled around a campfire and trying to recall the minute details of “Cape Feare” the celebrated episode of “The Simpsons” that parodied the 1962 movie (and its 1991 remake) in which a brutish ex-convict menaces a family he considers responsible for his having gone to prison. 
Like the storytelling characters in “The Decameron” who escaped to the countryside to avoid the plague that had ravaged their city, the people around the fire turn out to be survivors of a major catastrophe that, in this case, has wiped out electricity, and most of the world as they knew it when nuclear plants melted down. The thing that binds these random strangers together—and keeps them sane—is the shared memory of that TV show.
By the next act, which takes place seven years later, they have formed a theater troupe that recreates episodes of “The Simpsons,” which provide the lingua franca for the shaky new society they and others are trying to cobble together. The last act, set 75 years in the future, shows what happens to their efforts with a coup d’ theatre that evokes the very beginnings of theater.
Playwright Anne Washburn uses this meta conceit to examine the defining role pop culture plays in our society and the ways in which civilizations create their sustaining myths. I love this kind of stuff (I wrote a paper on creation myths in college and started consuming pop culture with my Pablum) and yet I can’t share Brantley’s enthusiasm for the show.
That may be, at least in part, because I don’t buy the central point that “The Simpsons” would be the primary thing these survivors would struggle so hard to remember and then build their new culture around. 

Other cultural remnants—Gilbert & Sullivan ditties, the novelty song “Who Let the Dogs Out" and a scene from Grease—do sneak into Mr. Burns.  But would none of the survivors have remembered the Bible, the Ring Cycle, the "Kama Sutra" or “The Godfather” trilogy?  

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve never seen a complete episode of “The Simpsons”. But my theatergoing buddy Bill checked out the "Cape Feare" episode (you can find it here) the day before we saw the show and it didn’t work for him either.

Maybe it's a generational thing. My husband K reminds me that people tend to cling to the cultural icons they discovered in their youth and so it makes perfect sense that Bart Simpson, who ended up on Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th century, might be the cultural standard bearer of choice for the Millennial Generation.
I'm not totally convinced by that argument but I can still appreciate that Mr. Burns is thought-provoking, well-staged by Steve Cosson and nicely-performed by a cast composed of members from The Civilians theater company (click here to listen to a piece about the making of the show)

The production values, particularly the evocative lighting by Justin Townsend and costume work by Emily Rebholz and Sam Hill, are first rate.  The run is pretty much sold out but, even so I still doubt that Mr. Burns will be one for the ages.
And A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff is even more evanescent. It's written by Lee Blessing, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of A Walk in the Woods, the docudrama about the arms negotiations between the Russians and Americans in the ‘80s. But while Madoff is, of course, a real person, the new play is far from a docudrama.  It's set in Hell and, just as in the “Inferno” section of Dante’s tale, the poet Virgil, here called Verge, is on hand to offer a guided tour of the place. 

As Blessing imagines it, Madoff (stolidly played by Edward James Hyland) has yearned for death, which he believes will be the oblivion that will finally put an end to the lingering guilt he feels.  But finding himself in Hell, he tries to ready himself for eternal torment.

Verge, played by David Deblinger as a whiny nebbish, introduces Madoff to some of his fellow residents in Hell from the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele to an unnamed mother who murdered her children, all are played by Eric Sutton and the very good Erika Rose.  
As the miscreants recount their transgressions and reveal the nature of their damnation, both Madoff and, more importantly, the audience is pushed to consider how truly accountable we’re prepared to be, whether in this world or the next, for our own deeds.  

It’s a promising premise and Blessing earns admiration points for coming up with it. But he undermines himself by depicting the whole thing in broad jokey strokes that too often flout the play’s own internal logic.

Meanwhile, director Michole Biancosino embellishes it with so much badabing-badaboom shtick that she undercuts the moments of serious reflection when Madoff encounters someone he cheated or the mother remembers the cries of her doomed children.  
By the end of the show’s 90 minutes, it has produced a few laughs but it also has let both Madoff, and the audience, off far too easily.

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