Through September 27
Written and performed by Jim Brochu, directed by Piper Laurie
Theater J, Washington D.C. JCC
1529 16th Street NW, Washington
Though the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities had a copy of Lucille Ball’s signed 1936 communist registration card, they accepted her excuse that she joined the party just to please her grandfather, because her name wasn’t Jaffe, Chodorov, Berman or Phillip Loeb. So says Jim Brochu in his one-man show about Samuel Joel “Zero” Mostel, which argues that McCarthyism overlapped to a large extent with anti-Semitism. “She could have called her show I Love Lenin and they would have forgiven her. And they did forgive her,” he adds.
The McCarthy era, “the subtlest and most insidious of all exterminations,” featured committee efforts to “eradicate communists, but communist equaled liberal, and liberal equaled Jew.” Jewish writers, directors, and actors were targeted for their influence, according to Brochu. “They didn’t call in the little tailors or the kosher butchers.”
“That committee of lily-white Protestants marched us in front of their firing squad of fear and pulled the trigger on our lives and our work,” he continues. “It was an intellectual final solution to eliminate thought; they couldn’t kill our bodies – they had done a fine job of that already – so they decided to obliterate our minds. And they targeted Jewish minds.”
Mostel (1915 – 1977), famous for playing Pseudolus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof), and Max Bialystock (The Producers), was also blacklisted by the committee, and he saw his friend Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg in The Goldbergs, commit suicide after being accused of being a Communist.
In Zero Hour, currently at Theater J in Washington, Brochu’s Mostel mixes humor with pain. He answers his phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League. This is Yassir speaking.” He tells a reporter he casts as a model, “Now turn more to your left. Oh, but you’re from the New York Times. How much further left can you turn?” He jokes that a press agent gave him the name Zero due to his school grade point average. He calls FDR one of history’s greatest Jewish minds.
There is something very special about Brochu’s Mostel. Not only is the script brilliantly written and hilarious – and it is both – but it is also personal. As a high school sophomore, Brochu met Mostel on the set of “A Funny Thing”. “I had no idea who Zero Mostel was when I first saw the show,” Brochu writes in an author’s note in the script, “but was knocked out by the comedic force of nature that ruled over the stage of the Alvin Theatre.”
A comedic force of nature that knocks people out is a description that could apply to Brochu’s acting as well. But when he says he was knocked out by Mostel, he means it literally. Brochu the sophomore had been invited to the play by his mentor David Burns, and searching for Burns backstage he ran into Mostel. Noting Brochu’s uniform (he was in military school), Mostel told him, “You must be General Nuisance. What do you want?” When Brochu said he was looking for Burns, Mostel complained that Brochu never came to visit him and stormed off.
Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour at Theater J. Photo by Stan Barouh
Brochu took the hint and visited Mostel backstage on several more occasions. Over time the two became friends. When he first asked Mostel for an autograph, Brochu was told he was unworthy – Mostel’s “behavior was as outrageous offstage as it was on,” he says – but after Mostel saw Brochu’s off-Broadway performance in “Unfair to Goliath”, he left an envelope with a signed photograph in Brochu’s dressing room.
Zero Hour is Brochu’s attempt to return the favor, “a tribute to the life of a man who overcame both physical and social obstacles to become one of most enduring giants in the history of the American Theatre.”
The show is set in Mostel’s studio, where he paints, as a reporter, who is off-stage interviews him. Mostel participates in the interview reluctantly at first, but then pours out his life story, down to the most intimate details. He is also particularly keen on ensuring the reporter knows about the evils of the McCarthy era so that it will never be repeated. “That was no committee; that was an inquisition,” he says. “That was no investigation, Mr. New York Times, that was a massacre!”
As if his political difficulties and run-ins with the FBI were not enough, Mostel’s leg was crushed under a bus in 1960, leaving him dangerously close to needing an amputation that would have ended his career. Mostel recovered – though his leg looked like chopped liver, in Brochu’s words – but he needed to use a cane. “And the great miracle of that whole horrible, life changing accident – it got me out of ‘The Good Soup’”, the play he had been rehearsing at the time, “How lucky I was to have been hit by that bus.”
Though he was able to revive his career, Mostel soon found himself having to work with Jerry Robbins, whom he blamed for naming names to the committee and for the death of Loeb. Though the other actors politely receive Robbins, Mostel attacks him. “Did you say hello to Jack Gilford over there, whose wife’s career you destroyed,” he asks. “No, don’t apologize, Mr. Robbins You saved America with your testimony. They’ll give you a state funeral when you die. But you won’t be able to be buried in hallowed ground because the Torah says that informers can’t be buried in sacred ground.”
One of the most powerful lines of the play comes when Mostel explains why he thought it was so important to make Fiddler about the entire community and not just Tevye the milkman, and why he argued with the creators, who wanted the actors to go beardless and to tuck in their tzitzit. “They said, keep them under your costumes and I said no – the audience has to see them,” Mostel explains. “They have to know who we are. They have to love who we are so they can hate what’s being done to us. Maybe I didn’t think the show was great but I thought the theme was important.”
Evidently the theme was very universal. When Fiddler toured in Japan, a critic wondered how Americans could appreciate a play that was so clearly about Japan.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.