By Thom Geier
Updated September 17, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

Some say the world will end in fire. Some in ice. But in Anne Washburn?s wildly inventive onstage dystopia, Mr. Burns, the cause of the calamity is less important than how the handful of survivors cope. Finding themselves in a world without electricity, they turn to theater — and that fragile human tool, memory — to pass the time and mark their shared experience.

In the first act of Mr. Burns, playing through Oct. 6 at Off Broadway?s Playwrights Horizons, we meet six strangers huddled around a campfire somewhere in the Northeast months after a mysterious worldwide disaster that has decimated the population. There are vague allusions to a bug, to the failed power grid, to disastrous explosions at nuclear power plants, and to nomads on the run from the worst of it.

Like the Florentine pilgrims in Boccaccio’s Decameron who swapped stories in the aftermath of the Black Death, Washburn?s characters try to re-create a story that they all think they know: a 1993 episode of The Simpsons, the one parodying Martin Scorsese?s remake of Cape Fear and featuring Sideshow Bob in murderous pursuit of Bart Simpson. But memory is a temperamental instrument, and the reconstruction of both plot and punchlines comes in believable fits and starts.

The action soon jumps seven years, and our band of survivors become a theater troupe, staging episodes of The Simpsons for increasingly agitated audiences — complete with commercials that recall items long gone from everyday living: fluorescent lighting, hot baths, diet soda.

Director Steve Cosson has reassembled many members of his Civilians ensemble for the production, and the cast?s familiarity with the material pays enormous dividends. Our players have morphed into an ad hoc family, and they manage to portray Bart and Homer and Marge while still in character as themselves. The roles feel lived in, the exchanges both natural and true — at least until the highly stylized final scene, set 75 years in the future.

Without going into too much spoilery detail, I?ll say that the show?s second act is a restaging of that ”Cape Feare” episode as a kind of absurdist operetta, with music by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) that incorporates snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan, Eminem, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and The Flintstones theme. Homer, Bart, and the others emerge as almost mythic figures (complete with masks), survivors themselves of a world without television (or YouTube).

Washburn has produced one of the most spectacularly original plays in recent memory, though she sometimes basks in the cleverness of her admittedly ingenious conceit. What sets The Simpsons apart is the enduring emotional appeal of the characters and the way its creators manage to make us feel for these two-dimensional archetypes. While Mr. Burns is a feast for the head, the heart is held at a safe remove.

Perhaps that?s an appropriate way to approach a fictional dystopia that has reduced the population to roughly 1 million hardy souls. And Washburn has much to say about how we pop culture junkies might face any future global calamity (whether by fire or ice). Encouragingly, she suggests, what will survive of us is theater. B+