The Unicorn Theatre, under artistic director Cynthia Levin’s leadership, years ago staked out a claim as the city’s most un-Christmas-y theater company.
As other theaters, from the mighty Kansas City Repertory Theatre to the little Quality Hill Playhouse, try to pack ’em in with tradition-bound entertainment filled with carols and sacred music, the Unicorn follows its own winter tradition — by booking shows that have absolutely nothing to do with the holidays.
True to form, the Unicorn is opening two comedies a week apart. The first is “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” by Anne Washburn, which began previews Wednesday and runs through Dec. 27 on the Levin Stage. Then “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man show featuring Seth Golay, begins previews Dec. 9. It also runs through Dec. 27.
“Mr. Burns” might be described as a post-apocalyptic comedy. Its premise considers how people would create new mythologies if the way of life made possible by electricity were wiped out in a catastrophe. In the opening scene, people are huddled around a campfire trying to recall episodes of “The Simpsons.”
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That description makes it sound like an elaborate joke, but director Theodore Swetz said it’s a multilevel play of substance.
“I think it’s probably the most interesting contemporary play I have ever been involved with,” Swetz said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to see a play like it. This is truly unique. It’s unique material and I hope it can really find an audience.”
In 2013, the piece was well-received in New York. Ben Brantley of The New York Times described it as a play “so smart that it made your head spin” and called it “downright brilliant.” The Unicorn production marks the play’s Kansas City premiere.
The show is a co-production between the Unicorn and UMKC Theatre, where Swetz leads the acting program. All the designers are masters of fine arts students, and a couple of the actors are from the school. The cast includes Matt Rapport, Manon Halliburton, Tim Scott, Jessalyn Kincaid, Cheryl Benge, Maya Jackson, Mariem Diaz and Matthew A. King.
Ultimately, Swetz said, the play raises interesting and disturbing questions about human nature and religious longing. He said Cynthia Levin brought it to his attention as a candidate for a co-production. (UMKC has an established record of co-productions with not only the Unicorn, but the Coterie and KC Rep as well.)
“The more we looked at it the better we liked it,” he said.
Swetz, it turned out, has watched “The Simpsons” off and on but was never a fanatical fan. He had to dive back into the trend-setting animated comedy as he did his homework for this production.
“That was the fun part — to rediscover what I knew and then learn a lot more,” he said. “That was a real treat.”
Meanwhile, over on the Jerome Stage, director Darren Sextro and actor Seth Golay have been hard at work on “Buyer & Cellar,” Jonathan Tolins’ comedy that imagines an under-employed actor taking a job in the antique mall Barbra Streisand built in the basement of the barn on her Malibu estate. The mall is real. The character is fictitious.
Golay has never before performed a one-actor show. And Sextro has never directed one.
“There was a handful of actors who I thought were particularly appropriate for this play and this role,” Sextro said. “And Cynthia and I agreed that Seth was the most appropriate fit for this.”
Golay, who most recently was part of the big cast for the Rep’s production of “Sunday in the Park With George” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said he had read the play a few years ago and liked its absurdism and its smarts. He had the part 90 percent memorized by the first day of rehearsal.
“Oh, I’m completely neurotic and scared about it, but it’s a completely new experience,” Golay said. “It’s nerve-racking. It’s 45 minutes of me talking and that’s enough to drive me crazy. But the material is so good.”
Golay not only plays Alex, the protagonist employed by Streisand to work in her private mall, but actor James Brolin and several other characters.
“You don’t have to know anything about Barbra Streisand and you don’t have to love Barbra Streisand,” Golay said. “Alex discovers what a monumental star she is, how she came from squalor and came from nothing. … The play is completely fake but everything in it is littered with actual things she has said in interviews.”
Sextro said he saw the show off-Broadway and admires the playwright’s skill.
“I was kind of entranced with it,” he said. “I’m not a huge Barbra Streisand fan … and it a sense it does roast Barbra Streisand, but it does it in a very respectful way. I thought the playwright had a walked a very fine line. It’s just a really well-written piece.”