Pharma Bro Farce is a Raucous Good Time
y cousin said it best once when I tried to correct him about an inaccurate detail floating around about Martin Shkreli’s one-of-a-kind $2 million Wu-Tang Clan album. Facts weren’t all that important when it came to the Pharma Bro, he told me.
“In this case the ‘narrative’ is a lot more fun,” he said.
That’s part of the joy of writing about Shkreli. The now-incarcerated biotech founder is best known for a string of hateful deeds that can be recited like a list of titles for a character on “Game of Thrones.” Hiker of Drug Prices, Smirker at Congress, Demon of Twitter, Harasser of Women, Hoarder of Journalist Domain Names, and of course, Buyer of Wu-Tang Album.
Lacking any coherent explanation for how a person can be This Bad, people feel free to come up with their own theories and mythologies, from a safe distance of irony. Never mind mucking up the story with pesky, complicating facts. And if the myths conflict, so be it.
During his trial for securities fraud last year, Shkreli was portrayed as an oily hustler, capable of sweet-talking sophisticated investors into parting with millions* and co-opting seasoned professionals into helping him conceal his crimes. On the public stage writ large, he is seen as something more like a hyper-intelligent alien, who basks in moral depravity and is incapable of grasping human interactions.
It is the latter version which the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen managed to hit upon perfectly in its comedic riff “Shkreli! Portrait of a Pharma Bro.” The title character played hilariously by Richie Moriarty in an orange prison jumpsuit regales the audience with an absurd and raucous 30-minute tale of his life. This is sketch comedy. It is mostly farce, but punctuated with a few saliently accurate facts — such as Shkreli’s reaction to his sudden global infamy after hiking the price of an AIDS-related drug by 5,000% in 2015.
“I’m….FAMOUS!” Moriarty’s Shkreli exclaims in perplexing glee, as video clips of the real-life Shkreli doing news interviews are played on screens above the stage.
Through it all he is accompanied by a “sidekick,” a simpering sycophant version of Shkreli’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman. (The real-life attorney, an iron-jawed go-to front man for defendants with massive image problems, who faces hostile throngs of media day after day, would surely wince at that interpretation.) In a particularly amusing exchange, “Benjamin,” played by actor Andy Bustillos, is called upon to sit next to Shkreli during a date and advise him against saying anything too off-putting.
“Boobs!” Moriarty’s Shkreli blurts out in a Tourette syndrome-like slip.
Side-stepping the fraud that got him convicted and sent to prison, the sketch reaches its ridiculous climax in a scene where Shkreli plots business world domination with a team of psychopaths, serial killers and child molesters. (The real-life Shkreli, I should point out, is actually trying to avoid child molesters. They are indeed on the lowest rung in prison, and there’s quite a few of them in FCI Fort Dix, apparently.)
Overall, the very funny plot, by writer Jared Eimicke, is a brilliantly boiled down Cliff’s Notes of Why Everyone Hates Martin Shkreli. But as terrible as he appears, it rests on a slightly sympathetic premise — that perhaps the Pharma Bro is no good, at least in part, because he is lonely and has no real friends. Like a Frankenstein monster brought to life by a lightning bolt of capitalism, or something.
A similar construct was used for another delightfully silly Shkreli stage performance, “Pharma Bro: An American Douchical!,” by Lauren Gundrum and Joel Esher. “Douchical” enjoyed a limited off-Broadway run in New York last year, and a more expanded version is possibly in the works.
As a journalist trying to unearth the real story about Shkreli, it can be a little daunting to see how easy it is for audiences to gravitate to a farce instead, or worse embrace it as fact. To me stories are always better when they are true, and I think the thoroughly-researched tale that I’m working on is more compelling than the burlesque.
Nonetheless it is very entertaining! And Shkreli, the real one sitting in Fort Dix, doesn’t seem to care one way or another, or so he tells me — not about what I put in my book, nor what comedians spoof. He seems to view his life with the detachment of someone looking at a modern art project. As a longtime fan of professional wrestling, he also enjoys playing a “heel,” he told me.
“I kinda like this character I created,” he said. “The people in on the joke get it.”
“Shkreli! Portrait of a Pharma Bro” has one more performance, 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, at UCB Theatre Hell’s Kitchen. Tickets are $9.
*Since I’m professing to care about facts here, I’ll make the point that the investors who were defrauded were all paid back, often with sizable returns. Prosecutors alleged he used another illegal scheme to pay them. However, the government failed to persuade a jury to convict him of that count.
*While I’m at it, I’ll mention that the Wu-Tang album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, is now thought to be an unofficial work by select members of the group. The fact I was trying to correct my cousin about was whether the government had “seized” the album. It has not. The album remains in a storage facility, paid for by Shkreli, pending the outcome of his appeal.
Christie Smythe recently quit a job at a large financial media organization to pursue a somewhat insane project. She’s writing a book chronicling the true story of Martin Shkreli, the Pharma Bro. Although she is not a fan of his awful antics or drug pricing tactics, she gets along with him fine and they have had many humanoid conversations. She decided to write this review for kicks. Questions? You can reach her at email@example.com or Twitter @ChristieSmythe.