The 2016 Springfield Contemporary Theatre "Solo Play Festival" at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza presents three one-person plays depicting three great American humorists. Actor/playwright J.R. Stuart opened the festival with a show he wrote about Mark Twain, The Gospel According to Mark. Stuart is also directing the second of the three shows in the festival, Zero Hour by Jim Brochu, featuring David Rice as theater legend Zero Mostel.
David calls the play “a real tribute” to Mostel, best remembered for his definitive portrayals of Tevye and Pseudolus in the original Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as well as creating the role of Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s original motion picture version of The Producers. Of course, he also played Pseudolus in the movie version of Forum.
Asked if he’s felt that Zero Mostel was the role he was “born to play,” David Rice chuckles and says, “You know, strangely, I think I have. I’ve been a huge fan of Mostel’s since—well, since I was a kid. He died when I think I was 12 years old, but I was still shocked when it happened; he was very young at the time, comparatively.” (He died at age 62 in 1977.) “I had the good luck, many years ago—I did a ‘day player’ bit role on a film called Eight Men Out by John Sayles [based on the Eliot Asinol book about the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal in Major League Baseball]. And they brought me in, stuck me in the trailer and said, ‘Here, put on a costume.’ And the costume they gave me was one of Mostel’s suits from The Producers. I had the joy of actually wearing one of Mostel’s costumes! So I have that sort of one-one-one... well, one-on-costume sort of connection.” Kind of the “Six Degrees of Zero Mostel.”
Jim Brochu has set the play in Mostel’s artist’s studio on West 28th Street in New York—he was a visual artist in addition to an actor and director. An unseen character, a naïve reporter, is attempting to interview the legendarily volatile Mostel. Says David Rice, “Brochu was an acquaintance of Zero Mostel’s. They met originally when (Brochu) had gone backstage to meet his friend David Burns during A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. He tells the story that he ran into Mostel in the hallway—he’d been berating some actor for doing some dreadful thing, and Mostel was reading him the riot act. Brochu saw this happen. The other actor walked sheepishly away, and Mostel turned to Brochu and said, ‘Whad’ya you want?!’ And he said (with voice a-quiver), ‘I’m here to see Davie Burns.’ And Mostel turned to him and said, ‘You never come to see ME!’, went into his dressing room and slammed the door! So the next time (Brochu) went back to see the same show a few weeks later, this time he went to Mostel’s door and knocked on it. Mostel (again) said, ‘Whad’ya you want?!’ He said, ‘Well, you say I never come to see you! So here I am.’ So they struck up this friendship. So he is speaking in the play from his great depth of knowledge of having met the man and been a friend of his for many years.”
So while it is a “great tribute” to Zero Mostel, David Rice hesitates to call Zero Hour a “love letter, because it shows all of his warts and all of his foibles and idiosyncrasies. But it is a wonderful portrait of the man.”
The unseen reporter’s questions prompt from Mostel an explosion of memory, fantastic wit, volcanic outrage, swagger, ferocity, and juicy backstage lore. And as David Rice explains, Mostel had some good reasons for harboring that “outrage.” “He was blacklisted in the 1950s after his testimony before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee,” which was on a witch hunt to expose supposed Communist sympathizers in both government and the entertainment industry. Mostel, in his testimony, not only refused to name names but basically told the committee members what they could go do with (or to) themselves.
“He went out of his way to make sure he was NOT naming names,” says David Rice. “As a matter of fact, when they brought (Mostel) before the committee they’d confirmed with his attorney that he wouldn’t be asked to name names. So they heard his testimony—they did not cite him for contempt of Congress; they did not throw him in prison like many of the others had been, for not naming names. But he was blacklisted: he did not work in film or television for 10 years. He worked nightclubs—he did his small little nightclub acts when he could get the work.” However, he did still have a few friends who would hire him. “Several of the people who had been blacklisted got together and made their own second chance: they renovated a theater on the Lower East Side and put on (the play) Ulysses in Nighttown” in 1958. Mostel earned an Obie Award for his performance in the production.
In addition to the outrage Mostel felt over the derailing of his theater career during the Blacklist, David Rice notes that he also harbored outrage “before he was blacklisted based on his (Orthodox Jewish) religion. He had married outside the faith when he married Kathryn Harkin, a Catholic Rockette from Philadelphia. His family disowned him—they considered him dead. They covered the mirrors, they ‘sat shiva’ for a week [the Jewish ritual of week-long mourning following the death of a loved one], and they just would not speak with him, would not acknowledge his wife. So he had a lot of anger at his past even before the Blacklist... though certainly the Blacklist didn’t help.”
During that down time in his career, says David Rice, Zero Mostel was spending much of his time in his art studio. “He was trained as an artist. He studied art at CCNY. And he spent most of that time painting—he was an abstract painter, an Impressionist, and he has some wonderful work out there. And that’s how he spent the bulk of his time. He couldn’t maybe sell that work, because nobody wanted the work of a blacklisted supposed ‘Commie’. But he did spend over two years just painting in his studio.” And of course this play takes place in his little art studio on 28th Street—“in the little microcosm of Mostel’s life—the place where he says he keeps his ‘friends’: his paints, his canvasses, his brushes.”
As for “real world” friends, David Rice tells us that one of Mostel’s closest friends was frequent co-star, actor Jack Gilford. Mostel, Gilford and their wives, Kathryn Harkin and Madeline Lee, wrote a book together, 170 Years in Show Business.
David Rice calls Zero Mostel a “huge personality, bigger than life. And when you have bigger-than-life personalities, you have bigger-than-life emotions—and certainly anger is one of those. But so is humor. To put it in modern perspective: if you can consider Robin Williams and the way he was always ‘on’—he was always thinking, he was always doing, he was always moving. Zero Mostel was Robin Williams writ large. If you think Robin Williams was a big personality, it was nothing compared to Zero Mostel.”
Zero Hour also presents some wonderful backstage lore filtered through Zero Mostel’s prickly perspective. “You learn not only about his early life and his time as a painter, but about his ‘love-hate relationship,’ as he refers to it, with [theatrical director/choreographer] Jerome Robbins. Robbins was one of those other people that appeared before the (HUAC) Committee and did name names. And Mostel hated everything about the man... except they kept getting pushed together professionally. When he first appeared in Forum, [producer] Hal Prince and the director George Abbott came to (Mostel’s) dressing room, because the play was bombing. And they said, ‘the show needs to be fixed—and we know the man who can fix it... we want to bring in Jerry Robbins.’ And that was a huge blow to Mostel.” But to his great credit Mostel agreed, saying, “Of course I’ll work with him... we on the left do not blacklist!” And, says David Rice, “it turns out they could work together, because, as he says in the (Jim Brochu) play, they put their ‘creation’ above their individual differences. ‘There was blood on the floor—but Forum was a smash!’” Mostel went on to work with Robbins on Fiddler on the Roof as well. Adds David Rice, “in the end, Mostel recognized that Robbins was no saint, but he recognized—and touted—the sheer genius that Jerry Robbins brought to his craft”—words that could be used with equal justice to describe Zero Mostel himself.
Summing up, David Rice calls Zero Hour “a wonderful play, and it tells some wonderful things about Mostel and about that time period that, really, when you look at what’s happening today politically, a lot of what he went through and a lot of what he fought for is still very relevant today.”
Remaining performances of Zero Hour by Jim Brochu, directed by J.R. Stuart and starring David Rice as Zero Mostel, are Saturday November 26 at 7:30pm; Sunday the 27th at 7:00; and next weekend, Saturday Dec. 3rd at 7:30pm and Sunday the 4th at 2:00pm at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza. Visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org or call the box office at 831-8001 for ticket information.