Edward Einhorn’s latest play is based on the jaw-dropping true story of a quack doctor who became rich and famous in the 1920s by implanting goat testicles as a cure for male impotence, and then in the 1930s ran for Governor of Kansas. It seems apt that “The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley” was the first play in the first full day of the 21stannual New York International Fringe Festival, because it fully reflects both the promise and pitfalls of a Fringe show.
An outrageous, protean figure, Brinkley was also a radio broadcast pioneer who popularized country music when it was in its infancy (helping to launch the careers of country music stars like Gene Autry.) So it’s fitting that “The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley” features five old-timey songs with new lyrics, and sprightly instrumental interludes performed by the five-member cast, including Julia Hoffman’s stand-out fiddling. Banjo-playing Travis D does a credible job in the role of the white-suited mountebank born in Beta, North Carolina. Guitar-playing John Blaylock serves as the folksy narrator leading us through the colorful twists and turns in Brinkley’s Fringe-ready life. These include his years-long fight with the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who campaigned to expose Brinkley’s dangerous quackery, and Brinkley’s eventual move to Mexico, where he set up a radio empire blasting to the U.S., which featured fellow quacks whom he charged to peddle their elixirs on air.
But too much of the writing and especially the acting is hit-over-the-head obvious. All but Trav SD portray multiple characters, often cartoonishly in silly wigs.
Playwright Einhorn, who is also the director, is an uncommonly intellectual theater artist whose Untitled Theater Company #61 has presented a stimulating “theater of ideas” for 25 years. (Among his recent shows: The Iron Heel , Money Lab, and The God Projekt.) In “The Resistible Rise,” Einhorn aims not just to tell the tale of Brinkley, but to tie it into current politics: The play emphasizes the similarities between its main character and the 45th president of the United States. But, not content to let the audience detect the true parallels on our own, the playwright also fancifully puts Trump’s words in Brinkley’s mouth, presumably for humorous effect. A mild example (one of many): “So many people suffering, feeling like their manhood has been lost. I alone can fix it. Believe me.”
The problem here is not just a lack of subtlety or the confusion that comes from not knowing with complete confidence which parts are based on the historical record and which just made up. “The Resistible Rise of J.R. Brinkley” is an obvious homage to “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a 1941 play by Bertolt Brecht whose main character, a 1930s Chicago mobster, is a stand-in for Adolph Hitler and the play’s plot the story of Hitler’s rise to power. (A new production of Brecht’s play starts on October 30that Classic Stage Company.) By the time I first saw “Arturo Ui,” I felt the analogy no longer worked; it might have been brave or insightful in 1941 Germany to compare the Chancellor of Germany to a thug, but in America of the late 20thcentury, it struck me as offensive to equate genocide with bootlegging.
Brinkley’s story is entertaining; the character’s us-versus-them populism may even be instructive. But we don’t need the goosing of J.R. Brinkley’s life story to see how wrong things are now.
“The Resistible Rise of J.R. Brinkley”has four more performances – Sunday, October 14 at 3; Thursday, Oct 18 at 7:15, Sunday October 21 at 5:45; Sunday October 28 at 6:45. Theatergoers need to pay in advance online, then meet at the orange flag at FringeHub, 685 Washington Street in the West Village