Monday, November 16, 2009

Zero Hour

We saw a play on Saturday night, another one of those absolutely striking one-man shows, this time about Zero Mostel, the actor and comedian best known for playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and, of course, Max Bialystock in the movie the Producers. The play, written by an actor named Jim Brochu and also starring Brochu as Mostel, is amazing. For one thing, Brochu is nothing short of sensational as Mostel. He comes close to imitating him, but also does something much more important and moving: he captures Mostel's spirit, his explosive, larger than life anger, and his incredible, side-splitting sense of humor.

Mostel's humor is well documented but his anger less so. You see, Mostel and many of his good friends were blacklisted in the early fifties, and in some ways, despite his later success, he never got over it. The play shows sharply and comedically how ridiculous the basis for the blacklist was; as long as someone named you, no matter how obscure, you were suspect. And the consequences were dire - years and sometimes even decades of little or no income and no opportunity to appear before the public, a performer's only way to get work. The play tells the story of at least one close friend of Mostel's who lost his will to live because of the blacklist, and treats Jerome Robbins as the ultimate genius-snitch. Genius, because he rescued at least two plays Mostel starred in - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, and snitch, because when the despicable House on UnAmerican Activities Committee called him to testify, he was so afraid of damaging his own career that he named a slew of Mostel's friends and fellow actors as Communists. Despite recognizing Robbins' genius, Mostel never forgave him for that.

It needs to be added, and this is beautifully dealt with in the play, Mostel himself was called before the Committee for being at a Communist meeting that he could not have possibly attended. But the Committee badgered him anyway and the notoriety that resulted dashed his own career for close to a decade. He recovered brilliantly but never lost his immense rage that such a thing could happen in a country reputed to be free.

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