Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Actress in the Lobby.

The New York Times review posed this question:
"I don’t know how many hours Mr. Brochu, who also wrote the script, has spent in front of a mirror practicing his eye rolls and bellowing quips, but it has paid off.
The answer is zero. He has done that zero times.

I live with him. I know.

However, he does it to the girl checking the groceries. And the taxi driver. And the waiter. And whoever else is in the room. And he's been doing it for the 25 years I've known him.

Brochu is as much Mostel as he is Brochu. I particularly love the quote from The New Yorker. "After a while, you stop caring whether a particular line is Brochu's or Mostel's; all you know is that you've been privy to the work of a great comedian."

Zero was all id. The same way Lewis Black is id. It's theatricality, but blatant and unapologetic. And it's truth. Angry truth. Angry, funny truth.

Jim doesn't play Zero. He just lets Zero in for two hours and then he wants home, game shows, the cat and something nourishing to eat (like hot dogs and milk, a food combination that I find completely disgusting). But we all get to visit with Zero.

He even lets you in on the fact that it's an illusion by doing an improv in the middle of "Zero Hour" where you see rage beneath the charming Z, without worrying about the fact that he's acting. When Zero's "real" rage bellows up later, you're ready for it.

Something else wonderful is happening.

All of Zero's friends are showing up. Arms crossed. You can see it in their body language.

"Who is this schmuck who thinks he can be Zero?" "Nobody can be Zero."

And they're right. They're absolutely right. Jim is not Zero. But at some point, during the performance, as someone remarked, you start to laugh, and then you forget. You just forget that you're not seeing Zero, that it's not really him.

And when you realize you've forgotten, it makes you feel warm inside.

Zero's back. He's really back. And he's pissed off. But funny pissed.

After the show, they all want to meet Jim and tell him Zero stories. And this, for me, is the best part of all. Zero stories!

Because, when I say Zero's friends are coming to see the show, what I mean is Theater History is walking through the door. It's pouring into that little historic church so quickly, I don't know where to begin to record it all. For this Buna, Texas country boy, it's completely overwhelming.

Sunday night, after Zero Hour, there was an older lady standing in the lobby. She was very elegant, a little fragile. She said she was an actress who once worked with Zero and she wanted to meet Jim and tell him a story. I invited her back, but there was also a group of his old college theater friends there, most of them now "civilians," one a priest, and, as I let them all in, somehow, I lost this lady in the crowd.

I feel awful that I didn't get her name.

When you do Zero, you open up a window onto a different era, the inhabitants are still around, but only just around. It's one that has special resonance with our own era. One that I understand is currently being captured in "Orson And Me," -- a new film which we haven't seen yet. Jim can't bear to go anywhere on his days off. Taking the veil. He won't go see a show. Bed. Cat. Game shows. We talked about that in The Big Voice.

In Palm Springs, this lady in her 90s, after show -- hair jet black -- said to Jim, "Do you remember me? I'm Anna."

Jim said, "Well, hi Anna."

"I used to see you when you walked your dogs."

Jim never had dogs to walk. And then we realized. To her, he was Zero.

But he was great with her.

Jim took her into his arms and gently reminded her that he was not really Zero, and she slowly realized what she had done, and smiled about it, but it was just so beautiful that she was still there, in the moment. With Zero.

So, Sunday night, this lady, a former actress told me she was in a show with Zero. A Lillian Hellman play or something. But she was down at the actors union and people were encouraging the actors to come in, and she saw Zero approaching down the street. He threw out his arms. She threw out her arms, and he turned around and fell into her arms, in effect, cradling him from behind.

As she told me the story, she giggled and posed like the dancer she was, or maybe is. I could just see this world of New York in the 30s, the verisimilitude smacking me in the face.

This old wooden church with its wooden staircases stood right here in this spot during that time. Its high cathedral ceiling and open area, everything here feels depression era, in a dimmed-out, realistic way. Even the fact that Jim uses no sound equipment. I close my eyes sometimes and can hear the speeches ringing out in union halls and church houses and theaters.

The producers of Zero Hour gave him a huge autograph book. Marvin Hamlisch signed it this weekend.

And we do love the celebrities who have come, and are still coming, but I don't want to lose the other friends. I hope they all come. I hope they all tell us stories.

But, no. Jim didn't practice being Zero, though I confess I've seen him cock an eyebrow in the mirror. (His make-up is disturbingly simple, and it's based on the Hirschfeld of Zero doing Fiddler. Why mess with perfection?)

And he does do crossword puzzles.

(His before-show privacy is guarded with loving ferocity by Jeramy Peay and Don Myers, the kind of stage managers Joan Crawford would have loved, these two are scrubbing down this historic church building, which has a food pantry every Saturday morning, board by board. Don, on the ladder cleaning the fans the other day. Jeramy, dropping down into a break between the grandstand and the wall to pick up trash that had fallen.)

I hope the lady actress somehow sees this entry, somehow, and comes back. I really did mean to escort her back.

When they say that theater is a living art, I'm only just now beginning to understand what that means.


Mage said...

Simply wonderful. Thank you so much.

Steve Schalchlin said...

You're welcome, Maggie. I'm so glad you're reading along!

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