The FringeNYC Festival shuttered with its last production performances on 28 October: The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley, Edward Einhorn’s take-off on a Bertol Brecht classic served as the festivals’ apt exclamation point. Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Umberto Ui (that Einhorn’s work parallels), satirizes Hitler’s alarming rise to power. Like Brecht Einhorn employs sardonic humor to reveal human avarice and fandom at its worst.
Divergently, Einhorn’s stylistic parody of Brecht’s work uses period music (1900-1920s), with lyrics he wrote to chronicle another incredible “rise.” Notably, the two-act hybrid musical, comedy, satire, absurdist bio-drama characterizes the American Dream, Horatio Alger “rags-to -riches” prototype. However, the prototype is turned on its head in the shape and form of one real-life JR Brinkley. JR’s misplaced ambitions destined him to millionaire stardom and fraudulent bankruptcy. Incalculably, this gentleman (who was far from one), lived and died in the American outback of the Mid-West during a period of few government regulations. Traveling the country to find a “home,” JR settled in Kansas where he thrived as a medical doctor (with no credible license or medical schooling).
Einhorn spins out Brinkley’s unbelievable adventures with a structure similar to Brecht’s. Indeed, his narrator (the fine John Blaylock), with guitar in hand, opens the play advising what events will follow. As he introduces each of the characters and advances a chronological narrative, mini-scenes unfold. In them Einhorn illustrates the key events which relate how Brinkley navigates the highbrow and lowbrow society in Kansas. Additionally, Einhorn calculates with absurdist stylistic treatment how and why Brinkley achieved success, amassed an adoring and gullible audience of followers, then debased himself in infamy.
With madcap music (on guitar, violin, clarinet, banjo, pennywhistle), the actors act, sing, and perform their characters’ foibles and fabulousnesses. The excellent Trav SD dishes up the loquacious, extroverted, con man Brinkley. His great good will fronts for an unprecedented amorality, corruption and greed. Taken alone, Brinkley’s avariciousness would have raised the suspicions of the most naive. However, through the narrator, Einhorn, with wit and whimsy reveals Brinkley’s illustrious masking qualities and manipulations.
First, as a self-proclaimed entrepreneur with an organized eye for expansion, Brinkley excels. In fact his creative promotional abilities guide him to envision every opportunity to defraud others with impunity. He develops the idea to treat erectile dysfunction and “sterility” with surgical implantations of goat glands. When the procedure works for one man (most probably through the placebo effect), he capitalizes on this unrelated “success.” With a keen sales savvy for the depression era, Brinkley like a circus barker, twists male egos against themselves. Indeed, he advertises his goat gland surgical cure to tremendous male response. Additionally, he develops a handy mail order product catalogue for a myriad of cures also using goat glands and other concoctions. All the procedures and healing tinctures prove ineffective! However, despite tragedies and deaths along the way, Brinkley becomes the doctor sensation of Kansas with his clinic and hospital.
In between songs performed by John Blaylock and the ensemble like “It’s a Lie,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and “Brinkley, You’re the Man for Us,” Trav SD’s Brinkley hoodwinks and shills his way to the top. Cleverly, he purchases a radio station. For his programming he hires the first “country and western” type performers to soothe and entertain. In between he hawks the “success” of his “guaranteed” home remedies.
Through his propagandistic Trump-style radio infomercials, sales skyrocket. Creatively maintaining control, Brinkley produces, directs, script-writes and performs his own radio programs. Eliciting loyalty, Brinkley and his cast of actors and musicians entertain and convince with “down-home” folksy, “bless your sweet little Christian heart” cheer. And to assist he brings in his sugary wife Minnie (the equally outrageous Jenny Lee Mitchell). His crew includes the singing Blind Cowbody (John Blaylock). And when necessary, Brinkley hires many other performers (played by Craig Anderson, Julia Hoffmann). Indeed, one of them reputedly was Gene Autry who started his career with Brinkley’s radio shows.
Einhorn’s comparison to today’s rise of Trump is right on. He reveals that Brinkley, et. al., like most sociopaths, politicians, and con men, knows how to manipulate his audience. Thus, he creates his fandom and star power by tailoring his programs and products to what the folks want to see and hear, regardless of their efficacy. Ironically, the fact that supporters purchase garbage that in many instances makes them sick, poisons them or kills them, matters little. If Brinkley says it, it must be true.
Yes, Brinkley’s huckster’s soul is rotted-out with corruption. Indeed, where the fictional Horatio Alger was aspiring and noble in his pursuit of the American dream, the real-life Brinkley was of the criminal, amoral class. Einhorn’s plot development shows that Brinkley’s followers swallow Brinkley’s charlatanism whole. At the same time we gaze in horror recognizing that history repeats itself. For Brinkley could be Donald Trump’s twin, minus a few disparate, demented and desperate details.
With stylistic brio Einhorn does what he enjoys doing most. He employs absurdist, comedic mayhem to examine outrageous social and cultural behavior. We appreciate the themes (greed inspires criminality). Another theme suggests: “harming others is OK if you never get caught.” Additionally, lying suits up the fraudulent con man beautifully. For by the time the media exposes the lie, the huckster rips out 100 more. You can’t catch a liar who never admits he lies or apologizes for being “wrong.” All of these themes Einhorn crystallizes through the lens of sardonic humor, hyperbole and wit.
As Brinkley’s audacity of mendacity, trickery, and chicanery ripens to its pinnacle, so do his liabilities. Not only does he attract the attention of Morris Fishbine (Julia Hoffmann) of the American Medical Association, but the relatives of many of those who have been killed, injured, and damaged sue Brinkley for monetary awards. Eventually, Fishbein and the press expose his criminality and officials go after Brinkley. As a result, he loses his practice and his radio station.
To gain recourse and change the law in his favor, he runs for Governor of Kansas. Ironically, the current politician allowed Brinkley to practice as a fraud because he enriched politicians’ pockets and helped make the communities thrive. If not for the self-dealing of his political opponents who disqualified ballots, Brinkley would have succeeded. Though he knows how to tickle the ears of his fans to support him, his demise threatens on the horizon. Thus, he picks up his stakes and plants them in a sleepy little town in Texas. And the mansion he built there, remains on the historic register even today.
The excellent ensemble’s overly exaggerated mannerisms make sense in this stylized production. And the songs and accompanying music find their synergy. Amazingly entertained, I also remained horrified.
Like Brecht’s Arturo Ui this play hammers out questions for us today. Why do individuals not identify untruths? And shouldn’t governments more stringently establish and enforce “buyer beware” laws? Why does the public allow politicians to establish a “market economy” that polices itself? Shouldn’t the enforcement arm go to independent, unbiased regulators? At what point do we say “enough already” to unscrupulous companies that injure individuals and destroy their quality of life? Indeed, must an individual’s gullibility that results in damage become his own punishment for stupidity?
The thought-provoking The Resistible Rise of Jr Brinkley presented by Untitled Theater Company NO. 61, remains doubly potent considering that JR Brinkley’s story is a true one. Albeit, viewing human behavior in all its “glory” reminds us of our own susceptibility to liars and con artists. Certainly, JR Brinkley would not have been initially successful if males weren’t drawn in by the lure of virility. If men and women saw through him, Brinkley, like Hitler, like Trump, would have been a loser nobody. Why ordinary folks didn’t #resist them boggles the imagination, and remains a clarion call for all time.
Considering those who follow Donald Trump as if to the death, Brinkley’s fraud and political bid resonates. We need more not less regulation to protect us from those who use the US taxpayer to self-deal. And we need heavy punishments for top officials, indeed presidents, who would destroy the public good to profit themselves. Indeed, Brinkley’s rush to avoid regulation parallels the Trump presidency’s push to end regulations governing finance, environmental protection, student loan debt and much more.
Look for Einhorn’s The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley at another venue, perhaps some time in the future in NYC. It deserves a second go-round. You will heartily enjoy it!