Thursday, October 14, 2010

Theater feature: Zero's story gives Brochu his finest 'Hour'

Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel, in Zero Hour.

By Hap Erstein

Opportunity rarely knocks twice,‭ ‬but here it is rapping,‭ ‬offering another chance to see the remarkable Jim Brochu as actor-comedian-blacklist-victim Zero Mostel in the one-man show Zero Hour,‭ ‬opening tonight at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through Oct.‭ ‬24.

Brochu first brought the show to the area in‭ ‬2008,‭ ‬at the Broward Stage Door in Coral Springs,‭ ‬prior to his triumphant opening last year off-Broadway.‭ ‬This return engagement,‭ ‬while the show takes a two-week hiatus in New York,‭ ‬can be directly traced to the Jupiter playhouse’s namesake and board chairman,‭ ‬Milton Maltz.

‭“‬Two years ago,‭ ‬I did a cruise to Antarctica on the Crystal Symphony,‭ ‬where I did one performance of‭ ‬‘Zero Hour,‭’‬ kind of a tab version of it,‭” ‬explains Brochu.‭ “‬The day after I got back,‭ ‬the phone rang,‭ ‬and it was‭ (‬artistic director‭) ‬Andrew Kato,‭ ‬asking me to bring the show to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.‭ ‬And I asked,‭ ‘‬Well,‭ ‬how did you hear about the show‭?’ ‬He said,‭ ‘‬Milton Maltz just came back from his cruise to Antarctica.‭’

“It’s unbelievable,‭ ‬who thought doing a show in Antarctica would lead me to Jupiter,‭ ‬Florida‭? ‬So I’m bringing a couple of penguins with me.‭”

In the show,‭ ‬thanks in part to a crafty makeup job,‭ ‬Brochu bears an uncanny resemblance to the burly,‭ ‬larger-than-life Mostel.‭ ‬But then for a long time people had been noting how much he brings the late actor to mind.

‭ “‬I recently found my yearbook from‭ ‬1964‭ ‬and next to my picture,‭ ‬someone wrote,‭ ‘‬Jim Brochu,‭ ‬also known as the Zero Mostel of LaSalle‭ (‬Military Academy‭)’‬,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬And then on my New York debut in‭ ‬1970,‭ ‬in a show called‭ ‬‘Unfair to Goliath,‭’‬ Jelly Talmer in‭ ‬the‭ ‬New York Post‭ ‬said,‭ ‘‬If they ever do the Zero Mostel story,‭ ‬Jim Brochu is my choice for the lead.‭’

“So‭ ‬40‭ ‬years ago,‭ ‬I was being compared to Mostel.‭”

Yet it was not until‭ ‬2005‭ ‬that it occurred to Brochu that he should create a stage show to capitalize on the physical resemblance.‭ ‘‬I was cleaning out my apartment and here was a‭ ‬Theater Arts‭ ‬magazine with Zero’s picture on the cover.‭ ‬As soon as I saw that picture on the cover,‭ ‬I thought,‭ ‘‬This is what I should be doing next‭’‬,‭” ‬he recalls.‭

“I think I must have thought it was inevitable,‭ ‬but it seemed like this was the right moment because I was approaching Zero’s age.‭ ‬He died at‭ ‬62,‭ ‬now I’m‭ ‬64.‭ ‬So I thought,‭ ‘‬If I’m going to do it,‭ ‬now is the time to do it.‭’ ”

Although he knew Mostel first-hand,‭ ‬Brochu began writing‭ ‬Zero Hour by hitting the books.‭ “‬What I did was I read everything I could get my hands on.‭ ‬And you know,‭ ‬the Internet makes research awfully easy.‭ ‬All of Zero’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee is online,‭ ‬a lot of his letters between himself and‭ (‬his wife‭) ‬Kate,‭ ‬so many articles,‭ ‬interviews,‭” ‬says Brochu,.‭ “‬So I just devoured it,‭ ‬and I kind of let it spin around in my head for about two months.‭ ‬And then I sat down to write the play and the play literally wrote itself.‭”

From his research,‭ ‬Brochu learned how important painting was to Mostel.‭ “‬I think he loved being on a stage,‭ ‬but even more he loved being in his studio.‭ ‬That was the life he preferred.‭ ‬He was a very quiet man when he was painting,‭ ‬very introspective.‭ ‬But as soon as somebody else was in the room,‭ ‬he became Zero,‭” ‬he explains.‭ ‬From that notion,‭ ‬Brochu imagined Mostel holding court in his art studio,‭ ‬suffering the company of a‭ ‬New York Times reporter,‭ ‬to whom he chooses to pour out his life story in‭ ‬1977,‭ ‬not realizing that he was less than a month away from his death.

Of course the show covers his career highlights,‭ ‬from such memorable stage work as‭ ‬Ulysses in Nighttown to‭ ‬Fiddler on the Roof and films from‭ ‬The Producers to‭ ‬The Front.‭ “‬Had that great unknown quality,‭ ‬whatever you call it.‭ ‬Charisma,‭ ‬brilliance,‭ ‬genius,‭ ‬whatever it was,‭” ‬explains Brochu.‭ “‬He was so mercurial onstage.‭ ‬He was riveting.‭ ‬When he was onstage,‭ ‬you just couldn’t take your eyes off him.‭”

Although‭ ‬Zero Hour has been a hit with audiences and critics since it premiered in Los Angeles‭ ‬--‭ ‬winning an Ovation Award there for best new play‭ ‬--‭ ‬Brochu kept tinkering with the script.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬it keeps evolving.‭ ‬I was making changes up to last week,‭ ‬putting in a new line here or there,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬So it always evolves,‭ ‬y’know‭? ‬As somebody said,‭ ‘‬Art is never finished,‭ ‬it’s just abandoned.‭’ ”

To direct the show,‭ ‬he enlisted a friend,‭ ‬film actress Piper Laurie,‭ ‬known for a range of movies from‭ ‬Francis Goes to the Races to‭ ‬The Hustler to‭ ‬Carrie.‭ “‬I mentioned to her that I’d written this play about Zero and she said,‭ ‘‬Oh,‭ ‬I used to see Zero at the Tick Tock Inn.‭ ‬We’d sit and have coffee and he’d butter his arm.‭’ ”

Huh‭? “‬He’d take the butter from the table and start buttering his arm,‭ ‬all the way up to the elbow,‭ ‬and then call the waiter over and say,‭ ‘‬Waiter,‭ ‬we’re out of butter.‭’ ”

Laurie attended an early reading of‭ ‬Zero Hour,‭ ‬had some good suggestions and Brochu asked her to take on the directing chores.‭ “‬And she said,‭ ‘‬I haven’t directed a play since high school.‭’ ‬I said,‭ ‘‬But you know what you’re doing,‭ ‬you have great instincts and we work very well together.‭’

“She gave me some wonderful acting tips about letting the sadness of Zero shine through,‭ ‬the crustiness,‭” ‬says Brochu.‭ “‬Very subtle things that made their way into this show.‭”

The play came to South Florida,‭ ‬earning Brochu a Carbonell Award for his performance.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬there is nothing like success in New York,‭ ‬which soon followed.

‭“‬Oh,‭ ‬no,‭ ‬this has been off the charts.‭ ‬We came up here expecting to have a‭ ‬12-week run,‭ ‬and that would be it,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬Then the reviews started coming in and it was like people were trying to top each other in saying positive things.‭”

He added the Drama Desk Award to his trophy shelf and suddenly is in demand for a variety of projects.‭ “‬It’s made me a very,‭ ‬very happy man,‭” ‬Brochu concedes.‭ “‬After‭ ‬42‭ ‬years in the business,‭ ‬I’m an overnight sensation.‭ ‬It’s funny,‭ ‬somebody said,‭ ‘‬You’re the best known unknown actor in the world.‭’ ‬OK,‭ ‬I’ll take it.‭”

ZERO HOUR,‭ ‬Maltz Jupiter Theatre,‭ ‬1001‭ ‬E.‭ ‬Indiantown Road,‭ ‬Jupiter,‭ ‬Thursdays through Sundays,‭ ‬tonight‭ (‬Oct.‭ ‬14‭) ‬through Oct.‭ ‬24.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$23‭ (‬subscribers‭)‬,‭ ‬$29‭ (‬non-subscribers‭)‬.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬575-2223.

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