REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Samuel Joel Mostel was nicknamed “Zero” because the publicity agent who came up with the name told him it was because “you came from nothing.” After years of struggling as a nightclub comic and in the nascent years of television, Mostel finally hit it big with two roles on Broadway, playing Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Jim Brochu’s 2006 play, Zero Hour, traces Mostel’s tumultuous life through the actor’s own words, as performed by John Medeiros, in a riveting, powerful, and emotional one-man show that made its debut at the Elite Theatre Company last weekend.
The rotund Medeiros is not only made for the part, he is made FROM the part. Once he is made up, Madeiros looks and sounds so much like Mostel, it makes it unnecessary for the audience to suspend their disbelief – this IS Zero Mostel on the stage: he of the bulging eyes, bull moose of a voice, and the signature comb-over on top of his thinning head. Madeiros bellows, blusters, and blows his stack in cataclysmic bursts of temper, anger, and frustration, all in Mostel’s unmistakable voice. But despite all the bombast, the most effective parts of Madeiros’s performance are the emotional moments when he moves the audience to tears as he talks about the most painful memories of Mostel’s career.
The scene is Mostel’s studio, where he secluded himself periodically to indulge in his chief passion – painting. The concept of the play is that Mostel has consented to an interview by an unseen New York Times reporter and relives episodes from his life, beginning when he was a boy living in Brooklyn. Born in 1915, Mostel’s love for painting was ignited when he was just a boy, when his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a young man, he gave lectures on art, during which he cracked jokes, which soon led to appearances at benefits, and finally, becoming a stand-up comic at Cafe Society, a trendy nightclub in Greenwich Village. In his first appearance, he followed jazz singer Billie Holiday on the stage.
Mostel credited his love for the arts to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, which, among other things, encouraged creative arts such as literature, poetry, art, and music. Zero Hour focuses a lot on Mostel’s left-wing politics; he became a Marxist during World War II, and although he never joined the Communist party, he entertained at many Communist-sponsored events. This made him a target of the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee, which forced him to testify in court on October 15, 1955. Mostel’s leftist political ties, plus his refusal to name names at his hearing, resulted in him being blacklisted for much of the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1960, when producer David Merrick hired him to appear in a play called The Good Soup, that Mostel began to work regularly again. But in the wreckage of the dark years of the Communist witch hunts, lives were destroyed, including many of Mostel’s show business friends.
Much of Zero Hour deals with Mostel’s fury at the HUAC, which he likened to an inquisition, an insidious, evil, and deliberate attempt to target Jews in the entertainment industry. Madeiros is magnificent throughout the play but he is never more powerful than in a scene where he talks about his best friend, actor Philip Loeb. Loeb starred in the early television sitcom, The Goldbergs, but after being named in the notorious anti-communist tract Red Channels, Loeb was forced to resign from The Goldbergs. In 1955, he committed suicide. Although the official cause of death was an overdose of sleeping pills, in Zero Hour, Mostel insists that Loeb leaped to his death from an upper window of the Taft Hotel in New York. He never got over his friend’s death, and it is a permeating theme throughout the play.
In a subsequent scene, Madeiros is illuminated by a single spotlight as a recorded monotone voice asks him leading questions, replicating Mostel’s testimony before the HUAC. The scene is as riveting as it is torturous. Madeiros’s pacing in the show, especially in this scene, is superb, perfectly utilizing gaps of silence to heighten the tension in the scene as he becomes more and more incredulous of what is happening to him.
Madeiros’s vocal and physical mannerisms during the play are remarkable, especially in a scene where he talks about Eugene Ianesco’s play Rhinoceros. In the play, Mostel played a man who literally turns into a rhinoceros.(The play is an allegory that takes aim at conformity in society.) Mostel famously refused to use makeup in the transformation scene. Mostel repeated his portrayal in a 1974 film version of the play, which co-starred Gene Wilder, his co-star in The Producers.
Zero Hour also provides a lot of fascinating tidbits about Mostel’s fellow artists – how he idolized people like Loeb and fellow blacklistee Burgess Meredith, but loathed producer Jerome Robbins, who Mostel called “Loose Lips,” after Robbins named names before the HUAC. In a key scene, Mostel relates how Robbins was brought in to save A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was in danger of becoming a flop. Knowing Mostel’s hatred for Robbins, producer Hal Prince asked him if he would be willing to work with his Nemesis, to which Mostel famously replied, “We of the left do not blacklist.” Working with Robbins was the most difficult decision he ever had to make. Not only did Robbins save the show, (He added the song “Comedy Tonight” to the show’s opening, which made it a hit) but he earned Mostel’s grudging respect as an artist.
In another searing, emotional scene, Mostel relates how his parents virtually disowned him after he married outside of his faith. That memory came back to haunt him when he had to play a scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye does the same thing to his daughter Chava. It was the ultimate collision of life and art and the emotional center of Zero Hour. When Mostel wasn’t cast in the motion picture version of Fiddler, it was the greatest disappointment of his career.
Mostel hated The Producers, the 1968 Mel Brooks film that he starred in alongside Gene Wilder (“I looked like a beached whale,” he complained). After the success of Fiddler, Mostel achieved the pinnacle of his career when he was invited to attend a state dinner at the White House with President Lyndon Johnson. He died in 1977 at the age of 62.
A self-described angry man of contradictions, Zero Mostel was probably the inspiration for every large-framed explosive comic who followed him, including Jackie Gleason, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, John Belushi, and Chris Farley, among others. Through the eyes of John Medeiros, we see Zero in all of his glory. It’s a sensational performance, possibly one of the two or three finest one-man shows we’ve ever seen. Hopefully, the show will not end with the conclusion of the run at the Elite – Madeiros is so good, his performance deserves to be seen in Los Angeles and other venues. But for now, see Zero Hour in the intimate setting of the Elite. It is not to be missed.
Zero Hour is sensitively produced by Vivien Latham with direction by Brian Robert Harris.
Zero Hour plays through September 6 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. On August 29, the Elite’s special guest will be film actress Marsha Hunt. Hunt, now 97, was a target of the blacklist era herself and will be discussing the blacklist, her friend Zero Mostel, and how the blacklist affected her career. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.