The Third Choice: Comedy Fueled by Real Life
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
A Jewish Family Theatre Presentation
At: The Sarah Bell November Theatre at the Weinstein JCC, 5403 Monument Ave., RVA 23226
Performances: March 29 – April 2, 2023
Ticket Prices: $20 for JCC Members; $25 for non-members
Info: (804) 285-6500 or https://weinsteinjcc.org/programs/arts-and-ideas/zero-hour/
First, some housekeeping. Well…acknowledgements. And…maybe a confession. I have been viewing and writing about dance and theater in RVA for more than 25 years, but this is the first time I have seen a show at the Weinstein JCC. It’s not that I haven’t know about shows there, or been invited, I just never seemed to have found the time to fit it into my schedule. Jason Marks sent me a DM about this show, which opened while I was out of town for a performing residency, and I somehow found myself driving straight from a DC dance space directly to the Firehouse Theatre on a Friday night, then to the JCC on Saturday after spending the morning in rehearsal and the afternoon at the Nature Center celebrating my youngest grandchild’s first birthday, and ending the weekend at Atlee High School for the final performance of a CAT show. That’s how “retired” people roll.
Second – and last – I appreciate growing up in Brooklyn and attending the Bronx High School of Science. That background made many of the Zero Hour’s references familiar and the humor genuine – unforced and abundant. So I could sum up right here and just say that Zero Hour is one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen and it appears to have been a perfect vehicle for Jason Marks. But I won’t – sum up just now – because that wouldn’t be fair or fun.
Zero Hour is a skillful balance of biography and entertainment. For those unfamiliar with Zero Mostel, it is informative, and for those who were already fans, it might reveal a few unknown nuggets. Mostel (who, like me, was born in Brooklyn and also shares my birthday, February 28) was active at a time when the US was obsessed with the Red Plague or Red Scare, when McCarthyism (which took its name from US Senator Joseph McCarthy) insinuated that the government and Hollywood, among other industries, were being infiltrated by the dreaded specter of Communism. Numerous investigations were directed at the film industry leading to the blacklisting of industry professionals – including Zero Mostel.
The freedom of any society varies proportionately with the volume of its laughter. – Zero Mostel
The heart is, truly, the source of love. The proof is that if you remove it from someone, they will almost certainly never love again. – Zero Mostel
An unfortunate encounter with a NYC bus in 1960 nearly cost him a leg. The leg was saved, but he lived the rest of his life in pain. But on the bright side, the accident saved him from having to perform in a reportedly bad play, The Good Soup. But there were plenty of memorable roles on his resume, from Tevya in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof to Pseudolos in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, from classics like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to special appearances on The Electric Show, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show.
There are several explanations for how Samuel Joel Mostel came to be known as Zero. One is that his mother coined the nickname because of his poor grades in school – but one bio notes that he was a “A” student. Another explanation is that a press agent once said of him, “Here’s a guy starting from nothing.”
Known widely as an actor and singer as well as a comedian, Mostel developed a talent for painting and drawing from childhood. He took art classes provided by a community program that served Jewish immigrants and their children, and later attended City College of New York and then enrolled in a master’s program in art at New York University (which also happens to be my alma mater). Zero Hour is set in Mostel’s NYC art studio, just two months before the end of his life, on a day when he is being interviewed by a New York Times journalist – whom Mostel contentiously greets by calling him a putz (idiot; jerk) because “I don’t know your name.” BTW, Mostel didn’t care to learn the reporter’s name until near the end of the play, because “I don’t want to know your name; this is an interview, not a relationship.
“That’s it, baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!” – Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel in the 1967 movie, “The Producers”
From House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings to his mother’s displeasure at his Catholic shiksa (gentile) wife, from his dislike of choreographer/director Jerome Robbins to often being not the first or even second but the third choice for roles he made legendary, from being blacklisted to being invited to the LBJ White House where “the thought of having to eat with Texans was too much!”), all of this, and more, is lovingly and capably captured by Marks under the director of Debra Clinton. Clinton, in the Director’s notes, paid homage to Mostel’s individuality – his commitment to standing up for what he believed even to the detriment of his career – “his honesty, passion, and empathy.” Given the larger-than-life persona of Mostel, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the reporter is a disembodied and oddly reticent character, given his profession; we never actually see him or hear him. The HUAC investigator, however, is voiced by Roger Price. It probably would not have mattered how much or how little the reporter talked, there wasn’t a dull moment with Mostel’s explosive personality. Sometimes it was hard to tell where Marks ended and Mostel began. I am sure playwright Jim Brochu who originally starred in his own play, would approve of Marks’ interpretation.
“It’s not about absurdity, it’s about conformity.” – Zero Mostel
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
By Jim Brochu
Starring Jason Marks as Zero Mostel
Directed by Debra Clinton
Set and Lighting Design + Photos: Todd Schall-Vess
Production Stage Management: Hayley Tsutsumi
March 29: 7:30PM
March 30: 7:30PM
April 1: 8:30PM
April 2: 2:00 PM
Run time: approximately 2 hours, with one intermission
Photos by Todd Schall-Vess
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