Audience members are likely to be asking
themselves the titular question, "Who Is Wilford Brimley?"
not only at the start of this mock musical biography but also
at the end.
A muddled 45-minute romp - at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg through Nov. 20 - that is neither half as funny as its creators think nor half as informative as it pretends to be, this series of skits, songs and PowerPoint presentations skips over many of the salient details of the show’s real-life subject as it hurries to lampoon those crash-and-burn star profiles seen regularly on A&E’s "Biography," Lifetime and VH1.
That’s too bad. Although Brimley is certainly an unlikely muse, his life could have proven rich fodder for abler satirists. The recognizable character actor and oatmeal spokesman has had a slew of notable secondary roles in popular films such as "The China Syndrome" (1979), "Brubaker" (1980), "Tender Mercies" (1983), "The Firm" (1993) and "In & Out" (1997) and his corresponding leading players (Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Tom Cruise and Kevin Kline) are a veritable who’s who of Hollywood. Yet aside from an amusing pre-show slide show in which Brimley movie stills are tweaked via Photoshop to look like painterly portraits, the actual scope of this journeyman actor’s cinematic career is only sketchily outlined.
Missing too are intriguing bits of Brimley trivia such as his stint as a rodeo rider, his time as a stunt double and his days as a bodyguard for multimillionaire eccentric Howard Hughes. Instead, the trio of performing collaborators (Jon Bulette, Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz) have opted to dream up their own particulars with the hope that seeing a fat old man dance, grimace and blubber will generate laughs aplenty.
Sadly that’s not the case as lead-footed sketch comedy relating an Oscar feud with his "Cocoon" co-star Steve Guttenberg, a Faustian contract with a strangely masked agent, and an absurdist confrontation with the Quaker Oats man all fall resoundingly flat. Other scenes such as one in which Brimley’s father warns him not to leave the Salt Mines of Utah for the glamorous environs of Los Angeles may be more reality-based but they’re hardly comically inspired.
That the few song-and-dance numbers fare better isn’t attributable to the threesome’s talents as tunesmiths or lyricists either. Instead that praise is reserved for the contributions of choreographer Jenny Schmermund. Her intentionally hokey steps, with their genre-jumping references to vaudeville, modern dance and MTV, make the most of this cast’s natural affinity for physical comedy. Mixing slapstick and fancy footwork, Schmermund liberates these gentlemen from their self-imposed limitations without overtaxing their abilities. Watch Bulette, d’Aulaire and Klaitz wiggle their fannies, sweep their arms in large shapes or trot like horses without restraint or self-consciousness and you know these performers could have delivered a vastly more entertaining evening had they brought in an outside director and playwright, too.
Lack of talent and daring isn’t the problem here. What’s wrong is simply that the overextended creators don’t honestly give a damn about the question they’ve posed. They mistakenly believe a silly idea will suffice for a full-length spoof. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, however, the makers of "Who Is Wilford Brimley?" are less than enamored of their object of ridicule. The central characterization is little more than a visual gag undermined by a half-baked performance.
Klaitz, who, with his partial bald cap, grayed walrus moustache, and naturally portly build, bears more than a passing resemblance to Brimley, hasn’t bothered to take his impersonation into the third dimension. The moment Klaitz opens his mouth or moves his body, the illusion is dispelled. It’s as though he’s only been exposed to Brimley through print ads while the rest of us recognize him from his ubiquitous, curmudgeonly presence on the small screen via commercials for Quaker Oats and Liberty Mutual.
Even further afield are the impersonations done by the supporting players. As the aforementioned Guttenberg, d’Aulaire dons a fright wig then considers his job done. As Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Bulette does even less: All he’s got is a T-shirt bearing the name of the former cast member of "The Cosby Show."
Ultimately, you can’t help but feel that this trio Googled "Wilford Brimley" for inspiration, then forgot to research him (or anyone else) once the project got underway.
Next time, they should do their homework or better yet, hire someone else to do it for them. As things currently stand, Wilford Brimley may be small time in the world of show business, but he’s currently out of their league.
"Who Is Wilford Brimley? The Musical" runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm through Nov. 20 at the Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Ave. between Union and Lorimer streets in Williamsburg). Tickets are $10. For tickets, call (718) 907-3457. For more information, visit www.wilford-brimley.com.
©2004 Community News Group
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