January 27, 2010

Is "Zero Hour" Worth the Time?

Zero Mostel created two iconic characters on Broadway (Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) and he won three Tonys (for Forum, Fiddler and as Leopold Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown) but most theater lovers today know him because he was the original Max Bialystock in the classic 1968 movie version of “The Producers.” Which made me wonder who would be the audience for Zero Hour, the one-man show about the life of the larger-than-life comic (he tipped the scales at way over 300 lbs.) who died in 1977. 

The answer to that became clear as soon as my old friend Phil, in from California, and I walked into the Theatre at St. Clements where the show is playing through this weekend. The people who came out to Zero Hour look to be the same folks who went out to see Mostel when he was alive. And what they see probably pleases them because Jim Brochu, who wrote the piece and performs it, is a dead ringer for Mostel and works hard to capture the cranky panache for which the comic was known. 

That, of course, is the first hurdle for a one-man show that attempts to recreate a well-known figure from the not-so-distant past. And Brochu pretty much aces it. The second test is to come up with a framing device that will allow the actor to explore the subject’s life. Zero Hour doesn’t rate as high on this one.  It relies on the tired concept of an interview with an unseen newspaper reporter but doesn’t even make it clear why the reporter wants to write about  Mostel. 

The answers to the unheard questions allow Brochu to cover the basics of Mostel’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing, his ambition to be a painter, his breaking into show business, his Broadway triumphs, his happy second marriage. But a big chunk of the show is devoted to McCarthyism and the blacklist that ruined the careers of so many artists who were accused of being communists. Mostel, once one of the highest-paid actors on Broadway, was forced for a few years to work in burlesque houses to make ends meet. But, of course, he eventually made it back to the big time.

Brochu clearly loves his subject.  In an interview with Playbill Radio that I enjoyed more than I did the play, he explains how he first met the comic when he was 14 and was inspired by him. (Click here to listen to the interview.) The two men stayed in touch until Mostel died of a heart attack at age 62.  And Brochu may be too much of a fan and a friend to have crafted more than a pean to his boyhood idol. 

Zero Hour might have been more interesting (at least to me) if Brochu had dug deeper and revealed some of the more complex aspects of Mostel, like the comic’s relationship with the agent Toby Cole. She helped him and other blacklisted actors get work during the height of the Red Scare.  But once he started working again, Mostel abandoned her for a more powerful agent. It may not be the same as informing on friends as Jerome Robbins (whom the play once again rakes over the coals for his behavior) did when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but it’s not a nice thing to have done either.

The third test for a one-man show is to provide fresh insight into its subject. And here, at first, is where I thought Zero Hour really fell down. If you read as many histories and biographies about Broadway’s Golden Age as I do, the play’s revelations about McCarthyism—including  the beating up on Robbins—don’t offer much new.  But after I saw the show, I read a review by a fairly major critic who praised it for teaching him about how the hysteria over communism affected the theater community.  And so although I found many of the jokes lame and the narrative oversimplified, Zero Hour serves an important purpose. For as the philosopher George Santayana famously cautioned “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But you needn’t think of seeing the show as homework.  My friend Phil, my original theatergoing buddy when he lived in New York, said he had a good time. The composer Stephen Schwartz was sitting right behind us and laughed heartily at all the quips.  The audience applause at the end of the performance we attended (despite its name, the show runs two hours) seemed warm and genuine. And the critical response was strong enough to earn the show a B+ on Critic-O-Meter (click here to read some of those reviews.) Zero Hour is moving to the DR2 Theatre for an open-ended run that begins on Feb. 24. So there will be plenty of opportunity for you to see it and judge for yourself. 

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