NEW YORK — Anne Washburn knows it may seem obvious or opportunistic, but she acknowledges that “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” set in a world where civilization has collapsed and the electric grid has gone kaput, sprouted from the trauma of living in a nerve-wracked New York City in the days and weeks after 9/11.
While her play might depict the end-of-the-world as we know it, don’t expect flesh-eating zombies, aliens invading the Earth, or warring factions of humans. Instead, that fraught post-9/11 atmosphere sparked a debate for Washburn about the pointlessness — or perhaps the necessity — of storytelling and making theater in the wake of such seismic societal upheaval. Indeed, it was a question, Washburn says, that many in the theater community asked themselves immediately after the event.
“If civilization falls apart, is making theater of any value whatsoever? If I’m in the business of storytelling, is there any percentage of value in doing that in a time of crisis?” Washburn wonders, between sips of tea during a recent conversation at a midtown cafe.
That question goes to the heart of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric play,” which the Lyric Stage Company is mounting in its Boston premiere beginning Friday and running through May 7. The play, produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2013, left some critics and audiences perplexed, but most have raved about its audacious and imaginative conceit. It landed on American Theatre magazine’s list of Top 10 most-produced plays across the country this season.
And if society-as-we-know-it does crumble, which of our cultural narratives survive? Would it be Shakespeare or Greek mythology? Or something more populist that everybody would know?
For Washburn, the landmark animated TV series “The Simpsons” seemed like an ideal artifact that would endure, because of its influence and longevity and the layers of pop culture references that it scrambles together.
“Stories that people have in common become very important. We need comfort. When you’re feeling secure, you want stories that astonish you and surprise you,” she says. “And when you are not feeling confident, you want stories that will charm you with their familiarity but also entertain you with their novelty and make you laugh.”
Washburn, whose new play “Antia Pneumatica” just opened at Playwrights Horizons, was also inspired by memories of sitting around the campfire as a youngster on school trips. “When you’ve removed TV from a group of kids, stories really do become a currency, because people thirst for narratives,” she says. “And if they’re not getting them from the TV or the movies, they want them from somewhere.”
As the play begins, a group of people are gathered around a campfire in the woods, drinking beer and desperately attempting to recall the various plot twists, turns, and jokes of the iconic “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Bart is stalked by a psychotic Sideshow Bob. Before long, it’s revealed that these “Simpsons” fans are among the survivors of a worldwide catastrophe in which nuclear power plants have melted down and civilization itself has collapsed.
“If we were out in the middle of the wilderness right now and someone started telling ‘Simpsons’ stories, that would be entertaining. We’d enjoy it. But if everything else is removed — the structures of society — it just has a different valence,” says Washburn.
The second act fast-forwards seven years. This group of survivors has become a theater troupe that travels the post-apocalyptic landscape and performs old episodes of “The Simpsons,” made-up television commercials, and a medley of top 40 hits, from Beyoncé to Britney Spears. There’s still no electricity, and the world remains a broken, dangerous place.
By the third act, the play has zoomed ahead 82 years, where we watch a haunting, musicalized version of “Cape Feare” by gaslight. The story has morphed from a gag-filled parody to a macabre, masked dramatic spectacle that suggests a Passion Play or Greek tragedy, with a chorus and foraged musical instruments. Bart, Marge, Homer are still central to the story, but Ren and Stimpy show up, and the villain of the story morphs from Sideshow Bob to the malevolent Mr. Burns.
Washburn collaborated with Obie-winning composer Michael Friedman (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) on the third act score. Friedman’s approach was to blend together fragments of music heard in the second act, inspired by the songs of current pop stars like Rihanna and Lady Gaga, with strands of the “Cape Fear” theme, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.”
“What I’m really proud of is in the way all those things come back in Act III and are transformed and transfigured into a score that is hopefully strange and severe and moving,” Friedman says. “How does ‘Single Ladies’ become epic? That’s maybe one way of putting it.”
A. Nora Long, who’s directing the Lyric Stage production, says that the play at its heart “feels like a really powerful defense for the intrinsic value of art to us as human beings.” It examines how civilizations use storytelling to give meaning and shape to our world and even, perhaps, to help reform a society from the ashes of the the past.
“How do we use those stories to understand ourselves?” Washburn asks. “And how much of it is fiction? And how much of it is fact? And how much of it is who-can-say? Our stories completely and utterly define us.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, April 8-May 7. Tickets: From $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.