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
On August 29 the world became just a little less funny with the news that legendary comedian Gene Wilder had passed away at the age of 83. Gene Wilder performed in several Broadway productions including Mother Courage and Her Children and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before getting his first film role in the 1967 picture Bonnie and Clyde working alongside Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. But he didn’t really hit it big until The Producers (1968) written and directed by Mel Brooks where as Leo Bloom, Wilder played the straight man to Zero Mostel. Wilder was in a word magical; the scene where Mostel’s Max gets Leo dancing around in a fountain is one for the ages as is seeing the Jewish Leo having to wear a swastika banner on his arm. Wilder was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Mel Brooks (And America!) had found a new Funnyman.
Gene Wilder’s iconic performance in the titular role of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. No offense to Johnny Depp, but no one, no one could play a peculiar, sad-eyed dreamer like Wilder could with those large haunting, melancholy peepers of his. In 1972, Wilder was featured in Woody Allen’s classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask. In 1974, Wilder starred in two movies for Brooks; Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein both of which are now universally agreed on as not only Brooks best work, not only two of the best comedies of all time, but as two of the best movies of all time. Period. (To this day my father has memorized the whole song and dance routine for Young Frankenstein’s musical number “Putting on the Ritz.”)
Then came the Richard Pryor years following the 1976 hit Silver Streak when Hollywood learned that Pryor and Wilder were a dynamite pairing. The two would go on to make three more films Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1990). The last was the last major film either one of them ever starred in. Pryor became increasingly debilitated due to MS and died in 2005, while Wilder became more retiring in the wake of the death of his third wife Gilda Radner at the age of 42, from ovarian cancer in 1989. He only had a few smaller television gigs, including the role of Mock Turtle in a live action version of Alice in Wonderland, and then retreated to private life completely. But oh what a run he had while it lasted!
Goodbye Gene, and I hope you’re riding off into the sunset now somewhere with Gilda, Richard, Zero, and Cleavon Little.
Photo from Bigstock
In further proof that Hollywood is out of fresh ideas for anything that doesn’t star someone wearing a cape, they’ve decided to do a completely unnecessary remake of the Charlton Heston classic Ben-Hur, coming out on August, 19. But to be fair to the movie executives, there is something especially appealing about films set in the days of Ancient Rome. Consider the following.
Julius Caesar (1953) This film adaption of the Shakespearean play was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz of All About Eve. Louis Calhern (The Asphalt Jungle, The Prisoner of Zenda) played the title role, while James Mason (The Boys From Brazil, Murder by Decree) played Brutus and won Best Actor Award from The National Board of Review which also awarded Julius Caesar Best Film. Marlon Brando as Marc Antony was nominated for an Academy Award, and won the BAFTA as did John Gielgud for his turn as Cassius.
Spartacus (1960) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Howard Fast, it tells the true story of a gladiator who began a slave uprising against the Roman Empire. Starring Kirk Douglas (in arguably his most iconic role) as the titular lead opposite Laurence Olivier as Roman general Crassus the film won four Academy Awards including Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov for his turn as slave trader Batiatus. Furthermore, its screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, and President Kennedy himself crossed picket lines to view the film! It became Universal Studios highest grossing picture to date, and “I Am Spartacus,” is part of the zeitgeist.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) This hysterical musical comedy farce based on the Broadway smash of the same name, was directed by Richard Lester (Help! The Three Musketeers) and had the legendary Zero Mostel (The Producers) reprising his stage role as Pseudolus as well as Jack Gilford (Cocoon) as Hysterium. Joining them were Lester favorites Roy Kinnear, Michael Crawford, Michael Hordern, and lastly Buster Keaton in what was his last motion picture performance. It won the Oscar for Best Musical Score; no surprise since the music and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim.
Monty Python’s Life Of Brien (1979) Following Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the irreverent British comedy group wowed the world once more with this religious satire about how Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) a member of the People’s Front of Judea (one of a large number of divided Jewish independence groups who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans) around during the time of Christ gets mistaken for the actual Messiah. The film provoked gut belly laughter AND accusations of blasphemy from numerous religious groups. Ireland and Norway both banned its screening altogether. Despite (or rather because of) the controversy it became the fourth highest box office hit in Great Britain and the top grosser of any British film in the U.S. that year.
Gladiator (2000) This box office smash directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) about how General Meridius (Russell Crowe) is sold into slavery, betrayed by the evil Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), sold into slavery. Meridius then rises through the ranks of the Gladiator arena scheming to avenge his murdered family. The film won Best Picture, Best Actor, as well as three others Oscars AND helped revitalize the historical epic movie genre.
Top photo from Bigstock.