Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Zero Hour is a helluva piece of writing. Now tightened from two acts (first premiering in 2006) to intermissionless, time-stopping captivation, Jim Brochu’s one man play offers a no-holds-barred look at the quick, wry, perpetually angry leftist; a boisterous man who, though an actor by profession, longed to just paint. This deeply researched piece, as personal as it is historical, illuminates Samuel Joel (Zero) Mostel. Peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and insults, its serious depiction of reasons for the subject’s dark side, including a pivotal run-in with The House Un-American Activities Committee, provides affecting, whiz-bang dramatization.
Mostel speaks to a New York Times reporter blackmailed into modeling. We don’t hear responses. This cleverly allows Brochu to look directly at his audience while he (actually) sketches. “I don’t want to know your name, this is an interview not a relationship.”
The actor begins with his 1915 birth on “a beautiful little radish farm at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Pitkin Avenue” and ends about to start rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant. Mostel died shortly thereafter.
We hear about his passion for art (since childhood), immigrant Jewish parents that declared him dead when Mostel married outside the faith, his second wife Katie “a gawegus (phonetic) Catholic Rockette”, HER MUTHA!, and his inadvertent entrée into show business. Brochu leans over the drawing table to scream the last two words stentorian and bug-eyed, then lightly resuming the tale as if his outburst had never occurred. Sheer Zero.
He answers the annoying phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League,” screams, swears, slams the receiver down and cheerily says, “that was my wife.”
The subject went from being an art student, to lecturing on art-adding humor, then doing benefits and finally breaking out as a comedian at Barney Josephson’s Café Society. (We see part of the routine. Both physicality and timing are recognizable.) Watch the bird movement of his large head as it jerks around as if gauging the room’s temperature; his eloquent hands, fingers most often splayed, gesturing close to the body – like a smaller man; and the frozen beat he takes to allow humor to land.
“I was a Marxist….Why? WHY???!!!.(ostensibly the reporter has asked) BECAUSE OF HITLER AND FASCISM!” Next comes the WPA, a Hollywood contract cut short when Mostel blew off a Louis B. Mayer party for a Longshoremen benefit, and the life altering HUAC: Communism equaled liberalism equaled Judaism! Names are vehemently named. Participants excoriated. Friends mourned. Part of his testimony is shared. As if things weren’t bad enough, the actor was then run over by a bus. (Did you know this, reader?)
Theater includes famous roles in Marjorie Barkentin’s Ulysses in Nightown, Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco),A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gilbert), which suffered near fatal growing pains on its way to Broadway and threw in his path one of Hollywood’s major HUAC informers, and the iconic Fiddler on the Roof, (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein) during which his past came back to haunt the actor. (The actor initially hated both Forum and Tevye, the first iteration of Fiddler.)
We then neatly circle back with palpable regret to lost peers, lost family, and Mostel again forced to leave his art studio for theater. A last line, which refers to what he considered an outrageous request from Katie, couldn’t be better. It leaves us with a knowing smile.
Jim Brochu is so filled with energy, so present, it’s as if he’s performing early in the run of a new show. The actor has honed his character over the years to a degree that brings a whole human being to life. Though familiar mannerisms and speech patterns (including intermittent volume) are employed, this is less a purposeful imitation than top notch channeling.
Director Piper Laurie has done a wonderful job of utilizing the stage, seamlessly evoking mood change in extremely subtle chapters. Pacing is just right. Use of props is completely natural. One assumes this is predominantly the original direction.
Josh Iacovelli’s Scenic Design is detailed and evocative. His Lighting adroitly defines subtly overlapping vignettes.
There’s no credit, but Sound Design is excellent.
Production Photos by Stan Barough
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour By Jim Brochu Directed by Piper Laurie Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street Through July 9, 2017
“I wanted to be surrounded by women I’ve known most of my life, who I’ve worked with and loved,” declares Walter Willison. This show is doubly personal for the host/writer/director. Not only does it fall on his birthday, but the performer knew and worked with Wright and Forrest over 15 years. (He peppers the concert with illuminating facts and anecdotes.) This retrospective was the single unrealized project on the collaborators’ bucket list when they passed.
Robert Wright (1914- 2005) and George Forrest (1915- 1999), musical theater composer-lyricists, worked together over 70 uninterrupted years beginning in high school. At 14 and 15 respectively, Wright had accompanied Ziegfeld’s Helen Morgan in an illegal speakeasy and Forrest had entertained aboard cruise ships. Setting their caps for film, the two played clubs from Miami to Los Angeles landing a job at MGM as songwriters. “In those days,” Willison reminds us, “You had to go to one of those beautiful, gilded movie palaces” to hear the music. He sighs.
An evocative “A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream” (also the name of a CD celebrating the partners’ oeuvre), begins a parentheses of Hollywood-era songs exuberantly performed by our host, a showman to his toes. It was “The Donkey Serenade” that cinched the writers’ status with Louis B. Mayer recognizing success when he saw it. There’s a song in the air/But the fair senorita doesn’t seem to care/For the song in the air/So I’ll sing to my mule…Go figure. With music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, the partners took Mayer’s advice and adapted classical material.
George “Chet” Forrest, Walter Willison, Robert Wright, 1989 Tony Awards (Photo by Henry Grossman)
Song of Norway was based on the life of Edvard Grieg. Attractive, young vocalists Katie Dixon, John Drinkwater and Matthew Drinkwater rendered “Hill of Dreams” from the show. For most of Janet -they called her Janet, not Jeanette-MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s tunes, Wright and Forrest refashioned folk songs.
As many of their Los Angeles Civic Light Opera musicals traveled to Broadway, Wright and Forest followed. In New York, they also penned special material for The Copa- cabana, a venue one would hardly associate with the team. Nightclub selections are offered by Lee Horwin and Marcy DeGonge Manfredi whose droll “I’m Going Moroccan for Johnny” gives us a glimpse into the collaborators’ humor: I’m facing the East/And salaaming all over the place…
Kismet, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin, was reviewed as having “not a song in the whole show.” Its score included “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “This Is My Beloved,” and “Stranger in Paradise.” Willison and Heather MacRae offer a medley from the show- the duet balances enthusiastically-while DeGonge Manfredi performs “Beloved.” Kismet was followed by Kean, Timbuktu! (another take on Kismet), and Broadway’s first Anastasia represented by Katie Dixon’s “Think Upon Something Beautiful” with the singer more conscious of notes than lyrics.
Diane J. Findley
Vocalist Diane J. Findley, whom Wright and Forrest appropriately recognized as adding class to any vehicle, sings (and acts) two numbers. “Has Madame Had It?” was written for Marlene Dietrich hoping she would star in At the Grand, the first iteration of what would later become Grand Hotel. Part monologue, part song, it arrives phrased like musing. Has Madame had it?…Is Madame slipping?…Should Madame chuck it?…Findley asks hesitating, one eyebrow aurally raised.
The unquestionable highlight of the afternoon is A Grand Hotel Suite. The musical, with the help of composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and director Tommy Tune, scored more than 1,000 performances and a Tony nomination. It was Wright and Forrest’s last collaboration. Three of the show’s original cast members successively take the stage.
Lynnette Perry, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi
Lynnette Perry appealingly resumes her role as pretty young typist, Flaemmchen, with “Flame Girl” describing film star aspirations, a song that was cut in Boston. Perry’s charming gestures and low key delivery land well. Karen Akers, who played Raffaela, confidante/secretary to the famous ballerina, performs the difficult “What You Need” with unexaggerated investment, palpably creating the character. And the great Liliane Montevecchi (as ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya) inhabits Maury Yeston’s moving “Bonjour Amour.” This artist’s signature flair and credibility are bracketed by wicked, onstage humor.
We close with a lively version of “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” the right song with which to exit in cheer and end this season’s Ziegfeld Society’s shows-which resume in September.
Unfortunately, we also leave with ringing ears. Consistent over-loudness, often inappropriately stressing lyrics and voices, may have been a boon to those hard of hearing, but the rest of us (and performance) suffered.
Finale: Back Row-MD Jose Simbulan, Stage Manager Mark Lord, John Drinkwater, Matthew Drinkwater, Executive Producer Mark York
Front Row: Katie Dixon, Heather MacRae, Diane J. Findley, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, Writer/Director Walter Willison, Lynnette Perry, Lee Horwin, Marcy DeGonge Manfredi
Photos by Steve Friedman Opening: Walter Willison
The Ziegfeld Society presents We’ll Take A Glass Together!: The Songs of Wright and Forrest From MGM to Grand Hotel Hosted, Written & Directed by Walter Willison Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano – Jose Simbulan Lang Hall Hunter College June 24, 2017 The Ziegfeld Society
We begin with a clever, short video in which Heather Massie is seen as Lamar posing in several iconic films. This is followed by actual scenes from Algiers with amusing subtitles. Brava for these.
The woman we know as movie star Hedy Lamar 1914-2000 (correct pronunciation: HADEE, long A), was born Hedwig Eva Maria. According to author/artist Heather Massie, both parents told the actress eventually considered one of the world’s great beauties she was an ugly child. Mama wanted Hedy to be cultured, marry, and bear children. Papa encouraged her to use her mind, to ask questions and learn about how things work.
Massie, in a good wig and grotesque eyebrows, offers a credible Austrian accent but speaks harshly and often in singsong manner. Neither this nor her movement channels the thoughtful response and measured tenor of her subject. While Lamarr was decidedly graceful and ladylike, this performer shows us someone who is not. (Director-Joan Kane)
While still a student, Lamarr set her sights on the film business, quickly rising from script girl to small and then large roles. Her breakout appearance was in Ecstasy (Gustav Machaty 1933). Naively believing cameras, as promised, would show her at a distance, she ran naked out of a wood and jumped into a lake. Scandal! More work followed.
The young woman regretted marriage to her controlling second husband, a powerful munitions dealer who sold to both Mussolini and Hitler. (Lamarr would have six spouses plus one adopted and two biological children.) She escaped, Massie tells us quoting the book Ecstasy and Me, by hiring a maid who resembled her, drugging the woman, and escaping to Paris. Lamarr vehemently denied this, stating it was the fabrication of a ghostwriter. In Paris, she was introduced to Louis B. Mayer whom she outsmarted in negotiating a contract, and then welcomed her to Hollywood despite skepticism about “small tits.”
Massie is engaging with an intimate audience, effectively drawing us in with command of the stage. We’re with her when she loses her place and – adapts.
Lines of dialogue I found as broad as parody (abetted by the eyebrows) were admittedly met with laughter (abetted by friends and family?) Unfortunately, the actress leaves her created persona too often as she represents people in the star’s life. This is always dramatically difficult and could have easily been avoided with the choice to remain at least mostly in as Hedy. A gimmick of “conjuring” several ex-leading men, bookended with whoo whoo music, doesn’t work.
Lamarr apparently tolerated Tinsel Town’s parties and publicity, though glad of the work. Desperate to help with war efforts, she enlisted the equally unlikely George Antheil (composer), who had once briefly been a munitions inspector. The two developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes using spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming. (Evidently, she had accompanied her last husband to business meetings where he conferred with scientists and other professionals involved in military technology. One presumes he considered her arm candy.)
Hedy Kiesler Markey, her married name at the time, and George Antheil, made a gift of the patent to the U.S. Navy who superciliously wrote back Do something useful, go sell war bonds. She did. (The system, which might’ve shortened World War II, was not adopted until the 1960s.)
This surprising invention appears to be a centerpiece here. Explanation of both the way it works and the circumstances in which it was conceived are offered. Intriguing and well researched, the section is not balanced by a litany of unmemorable film titles. Choosing those more important and embroidering with colorful anecdotes would’ve been far more successful than cramming in a resume. Lamar’s third husband is reduced to a meeting, her last three are condensed as “them” without even a descriptive sentence.
For the record, Hedy Lamar withdrew from the business, had an excess of plastic surgery and retired to Florida a recluse. We close this piece with the ghost’s thanks.
It’s easy to understand interest in the subject’s fascinating story, but except for material on “secret systems,” Heather Massie’s script bears the burden of insufficient character portrayal.
Publicity Photos courtesy of the show
United Solo presents Hedy! The Life & Inventions of Hedy Lamarr Written & Performed by Heather Massie Directed by John Kane Projection Design-Jim Marlowe & Charles Marlowe Additional performances November 11 & Nov 15 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street United Solo –the World’s Largest Solo Theater Festival continues through November 20, 2016