A theater company’s most crucial obligation is, of course, to its own patrons. In fulfilling that responsibility, however, it performs other vital services, one of them being — for a nurturer of contemporary work such as Woolly — some nudging forward of the entire art form. Finding and supporting playwrights who have the potential for broader impact are arduous tasks, involving a lot of trial and error and faith and patience. But as Woolly and other companies around town have demonstrated, breakthroughs can happen. When they do, the local theater options are enriched and the city’s reputation is burnished.
With very early productions of plays such as “Clybourne Park” — at Woolly in 2010 and the Pulitzer Prize winner the following year — and world premieres such as Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Really Really” at Signature Theatre last year, theaters in and around D.C. are revealing renewed strength in honing new plays that can have a successful afterlife. (Woolly in earlier days was critical to the careers of dramatists such as Nicky Silver and Doug Wright, the latter an eventual Pulitzer winner for “I Am My Own Wife.”)
“Mr. Burns” is the latest example, and in the wake of glowing reviews — “I look forward to remembering it for a long, long time,” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times — the play will doubtless begin to materialize on the schedules of theaters all over the place. The piece is at once an affectionate tribute to a beloved pop institution, “The Simpsons”; a wisdom-laced illustration of the basic human need for stories; and a diabolically inventive game of telephone.
The play opens somewhere on the East Coast in the near future, after some sort of technological mega-disaster has drained the power supply and caused meltdowns at nuclear plants. We are in the encampment of a group of survivors — among the few hundred thousand Americans still alive — who, subsisting in a world in which electronics are useless, entertain one another by trying to remember the plot of a particular “Simpsons” episode.
That would be the “Cape Feare” episode, a parody of, among other things, the 1991 movie thriller “Cape Fear” with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte, that was in turn a remake of the 1962 original film of the same title with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. In their hilariously elaborate efforts to reconstruct the episode — there’s not much else to do in this hollow future — no person’s memory is entirely trustworthy. To recover the tale, it takes a devastated village. (As a mournful counterpoint, the survivors fill personal journals with names of all the people they encounter, a record demanding far more than memory.)