Friday, August 28, 2009
When writer and actor Jim Brochu picks up the phone at his home in Los Angeles, he is eager to share some good news.
He has just learned that "Zero Hour," his one-man play about the late, larger-than-life actor Zero Mostel, which opens Saturday at Theater J, has been picked up for an off-Broadway run in the fall.
But there's bad news, too: Brochu has picked up something else -- an annoying cold.
Yet even the misfortune has an upside. "I think I caught the cold from Topol!" he says gleefully.
Brochu explains that he met Chaim Topol after a recent performance of "Fiddler on the Roof," the musical in which Topol has toured extensively in the decades since winning the role of Tevye -- originated by Mostel on Broadway in 1964 -- when the hit show was adapted for the screen.
Given Mostel's choice zingers at his rival's expense in "Zero Hour," in which Brochu portrays Mostel giving a no-holds-barred interview shortly before his death in 1977, the cold could be interpreted as a bit of cosmic justice.
But cold and all, Brochu, 63, is happy to have another slice of life with which to flesh out his connection to Mostel, who survived the McCarthy-era blacklist, achieved Broadway superstardom in 1962's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Fiddler," and secured his film legacy alongside Gene Wilder in the 1968 Mel Brooks comedy "The Producers."
It's the blacklist, in fact, that drives much of the conflict in "Zero Hour," more so than Mostel's having been upstaged by Topol. And the conflict comes to a head when Mostel faces the prospect of working in "Forum" under the guidance of famed director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, who, like Mostel, was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s but who, unlike Mostel, named names in hopes of saving his career.
Onstage, Brochu re-creates a portion of Mostel's testimony, emphasizing his indignation at the proceedings but also eliciting laughter and defusing some of the intensity of the situation.
In a larger sense, "his sense of humor saved him," says Brochu, whose lifelong admiration for Mostel deepened with research into the adversity he faced beyond the blacklist, including a harsh reaction from his Jewish parents over his marriage to a Catholic woman and a devastating leg injury he sustained in 1960 when he was struck by a New York City bus.
Brochu tapped his friend Piper Laurie, the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actress, to help shape "Zero Hour," which marks her debut as a stage director.
Mostel "wasn't just a clown, he was an intellectual," Laurie, 77, says by phone from Los Angeles.
Brochu "doesn't need very much from a director," she says. "I saw their common personality traits . . . and I know how to encourage things that need encouraging."
Ultimately, Brochu says, "Zero Hour" has done more than merely allow him to inhabit Mostel as a character:
"Sometimes he really inhabits me."
Zero Hour Theater J, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 800-494-8497. http:/