Even granting that “The Simpsons’’ does not consistently scale the giddy satiric heights it once did, the show’s status as one of the greatest TV series of all time remains secure. Just consider the way its ever-expanding comic universe has managed to encompass virtually every facet of American life as the 20th century yielded to the 21st.
So it’s fitting that the series serves as the fulcrum of Anne Washburn’s fascinating “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,’’ a dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic future in which an episode of “The Simpsons’’ looms increasingly large as a cultural totem.
This multilayered drama, which is certain to polarize audiences, is directed by A. Nora Long with steadily gathering force at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. “Mr. Burns’’ asks us to consider what it is about storytelling that makes it so important to our survival — quite literally, in this case — and how the shape and meaning of our stories can change over time, depending on the needs of the reader, the listener, or the viewer.
Implicit in Washburn’s play is a recognition that pop culture only seems disposable, that in reality it often lodges itself permanently in our memory banks, a kind of secular scripture for times of need.
Need at a dire and existential level is pressing in on the survivors of a global nuclear catastrophe in “Mr. Burns,’’ who inhabit a planet devoid of electricity and poisoned by radioactivity. At the start of the play, they are gathered in near-darkness around a fire in a trash can, trying to reconstruct the plot and dialogue of the “Cape Feare’’ episode of “The Simpsons,’’ in which the hilariously deranged Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) talks his way out of prison so he can pursue his murderous vendetta against nemesis Bart Simpson.
While the conversation among the survivors illustrates the randomly firing synapses of cultural memory, there’s also a striking intensity to the way they hash out every detail of the episode, ranging from “Cape Fear,’’ the 1962 Robert Mitchum film that inspired the “Simpsons’’ episode, to the ultra-violent 1991 remake directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, to Mitchum’s “The Night of the Hunter’’ and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.’’ Like custodians of the oral tradition from the age before Homer (the other Homer), these survivors are holding on for dear life to remnants of their vanished world.
That “Simpsons’’ episode will prove to be the foundational text for the civilization that staggers on into an increasingly bleak future. If you think the network competition for Nielsen ratings is fierce today, wait till you see the second act of “Mr. Burns,’’ set seven years after the first, when performance of “Cape Feare’’ and other “Simpsons’’ episodes is essentially a life-or-death proposition (“Survivor,’’ indeed), which makes story lines and scraps of dialogue a desperately sought form of currency. Playwright Washburn recognizes the primacy of TV as the true home to the defining narratives of our times, but she’s also subtly arguing for theater’s vital role in sustaining those narratives.
Skillfully meeting the performance challenges of “Mr. Burns’’ are the seven members of Long’s ensemble, each of whom plays both a survivor and a character from “The Simpsons’’: Aimee Doherty, Brandon G. Green, Nael Nacer, Lindsey McWhorter, Jordan Clark, Gillian Mackay-Smith, and Joseph Marrella.
When playing members of a theater troupe with a “Simpsons’’-centric repertoire, the cast bursts into a pop medley, choreographed by Yo-El Cassell, that is exhilarating yet contains hints of dread. Soon enough comes a development that is both shocking and inevitable. But Washburn isn’t done: After intermission, we’re launched far into the future, where the nuclear catastrophe — having now attained mythic status — is enacted in macabre story and song by a troupe in “Simpsons’’ masks. (Washburn wrote the lyrics to music by the gifted Michael Friedman, of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’ fame, and the rivetingly creepy masks were designed by Lauren Duffy).
Make no mistake, “Mr. Burns’’ is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. (I’m firmly in the first camp). The Lyric Stage production is slow going at first, and it helps to have at least some familiarity with the “Simpsons’’ characters and sensibility. If you don’t, you might find yourself confused or exasperated at times. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be thinking about this play for a long time, because “Mr. Burns’’ is challenging in all the right ways.
MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
Play by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman. Lyrics by Washburn. Directed by A. Nora Long. Music director, Allyssa Jones. Choreography, Yo-El Cassell. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through May 7. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com