Sunday, April 15, 2007

Zero Hour in the Houston Chronicle

Sunday morning brings a terrific article about Zero Hour in the Houston Chronicle.

When I got the link in an email, it didn't work very well. So I went to and entered through the front page. You might have to do that.

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Any playwright attempting a solo biographical play had better make sure he's chosen a fascinating subject.

So why would Jim Brochu write a solo play about a big zero?

Because the "zero" in question is the late, great Zero Mostel.

Brochu stars as the unique, celebrated and bedeviled actor in Zero Hour, making its Houston debut Friday at Stages Repertory Theatre.

Mostel (1915-77) is best remembered for originating the role of disreputable producer Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks' original 1967 film The Producers, and for his three Tony-winning Broadway triumphs of the 1960s: in Ionesco's theater-of-the-absurd landmark Rhinoceros, and in the hit musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof.

That decade's achievements constituted a spectacular comeback. Mostel's career had been derailed throughout the 1950s, when he was blacklisted because of his political affiliations and refusal to "name names" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

A larger-than-life figure in every respect, Mostel was renowned for his explosive presence and abrupt transformations (onstage and off) from jovial to hostile, gentle to volcanic. His tendency to improvise delighted audiences, but often exasperated playwrights, directors and fellow actors.

"Playing him is like trying to put socks on an octopus," Brochu says. "You never know where the next tentacle's going to jut out. But the mischief, the danger, the volatility — all that makes it fun. I find I slip very easily into this role. Somehow it comes naturally to me."

Brochu, who co-created the off-Broadway musicals The Last Session and The Big Voice: God or Merman? (which he performed at Stages in 2003), cites several reasons for his affinity with Mostel.

"He was a big fellow, as I am. With every acting job I've ever done, someone has compared me to Zero." More important, Mostel was a friend and mentor to Brochu, who was 14 when he met the star, then performing in Forum.

"I had never seen a funnier, more explosive performance," Brochu recalls of Mostel as the scheming slave Pseudolus. "He just knocked you back in your seat, he was such a force of nature."

After the show, Brochu ventured backstage to visit with veteran actor and Forum co-star David Burns (a family friend, through Brochu's father).

"I ran into Zero, his costume soaked with sweat. I was going to military school, so I was wearing a uniform. Zero asked 'Who are you? General Nuisance?' I told him, 'I'm Davy Burns' friend; I've come to see him.' And he said, 'You never come to see me.' I said, 'OK, I will.' And he said, 'You'd better!' "

Brochu indeed began visiting backstage with Mostel as well as Burns — marveling at the celebrities he'd encounter in Mostel's dressing room.

The friendship continued, and when Fiddler premiered, Brochu was in the front row, leading the standing ovation.

When Brochu came across an old Theater Arts magazine with Mostel on its cover in 2005, it started him thinking: Could he make a play about Mostel?

"When I began looking into his earlier life, I was floored by the personal and professional obstacles he had to overcome."

Beyond the blacklist and consequent financial hardship for the Mostel family (including wife Kate and sons Joshua and Tobias), there were other frustrations and crises adding drama to Mostel's offstage life.

"For one thing," Brochu says, "his parents (Eastern European Jews who'd immigrated around the turn of the century) cut him off because he married a Christian.

"In 1960, just as he was getting his career back on track after the blacklist, he was hit by a bus. One leg was so badly injured the doctors were going to amputate it. He begged them not to, and they didn't. But they warned him he probably would never walk again. He was hospitalized for four months."

The fact that Mostel not only walked but also gave such vibrant performances as the ones in Forum and Fiddler is a testament to his perseverance.

Perhaps the biggest frustration for Mostel, Brochu says, was that "he feared he would be remembered as 'that fat guy from The Producers' when he saw himself chiefly as a painter. That had been his great ambition since childhood. And from the 1930s on, he spent eight hours a day painting. He always said he did the acting to make the money to buy more paint."

Yet Mostel had only himself to blame: He inadvertently launched his performing career. While working for the WPA as a museum tour guide during the '30s, he couldn't resist veering from the prepared lectures into his improvised comic bits. That led to gigs as a comedian, first at parties, then in Greenwich Village nightclubs. And his reputation as a funnyman led to his first stage roles, then to his movie debut in the 1943 film of DuBarry Was a Lady.

After his '60s peak, he did several films (The Great Bank Robbery, Once Upon a Scoundrel) unworthy of his talent. Just earning money to buy paint, one presumes.

In his final years, he seemed intent on reclaiming the artistic high ground as an actor. He appeared in a revival of his 1958 off-Broadway breakthrough role in Ulysses in Nighttown, received a BAFTA (British Oscar) nomination for his spot-on portrayal of a blacklisted comic not unlike himself in 1975's The Front. He was rehearsing the Philadelphia tryout of The Merchant, Arnold Wesker's revisionist take on Shakespeare's Shylock, when he died.

Brochu has set Zero Hour in Mostel's art studio, two months before his death, as a reporter interviews him about his life and pending stage comeback. The script includes two flashback sequences, in which Brochu relives one of Mostel's early stand-up comedy routines at Cafe Society, and his famous appearance testifying before HUAC.

Premiered last year in Los Angeles, Zero Hour received a Los Angeles Ovation Award as best premiere play.

"To take on the mantle of a one-person show is tremendously angst-making," Brochu admits. "What gets you over that is the love and support of the audience. At the beginning of the (L.A.) run, I knew they were coming to see a play about Zero. By the end of the run, I felt they were coming to see me."

• When: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 18 and Thursday, April 19. Opens at 8 p.m. Friday, April 20. Runs in repertory with I Am My Own Wife , through May 13.

• Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway

• Tickets: $26-$36; 713-527-0123

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