Alone on stage in the small and very intimate recital room on the second floor of Alexandria’s Lyceum on South Washington Street, James E. Mitchell III brings to life the story of one of the American theater’s legendary actors, Zero Mostel.
Without attempting an imitation of the inimitable, Mitchell becomes Mostel as he grants an interview to a reporter from the New York Times toward the end of his long and dramatic life. It was Mostel who lent his oversize presence to roles such as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," Pseudolus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and Max Bialystok in "The Producers." But, as Mitchell’s Mostel makes clear in his responses to the questions from the un-seen, un-heard reporter, there was as much drama and comedy in Mostel’s private life as there was in the shows for which he is so well remembered.
Mostel thought of himself as an artist. Not as a stage artist, but as a painter. Throughout all the hard times he suffered, first as the Great Depression made it difficult for any actor to earn a living on the stage, and then as he got caught up in the anti-communism hysteria of the Cold War with its Congressional investigations and its blacklisting, it was his brushes, canvas and tubes of oil paint that gave him a sense of purpose and self-worth.
Mitchell has only an easel, a chair, two small tables and a telephone with him on the Lyceum’s performing platform. Without elaborate settings, costume changes or the support of other performers, Mitchell captures the audience’s attention and ultimately its affection as he relates the events of Mostel’s life.
As you would expect of a biographical piece about a great star of the stage, the play includes some very entertaining and interesting stories of his better known roles such as the fact that he seemed to be the third choice for most of his most successful parts or that he hated the idea that he’d be remembered not for great stage performances but for his film role in Mel Brooks’ original movie "The Producers." "I hate that move — I looked like a beached whale!" he bellows.
Much of the drama of the night, however, comes from the stories of his deep friendships with his colleagues and from the injustice he and they suffered in the era of the blacklist. Mostel was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, as related in the play, grilled on his memory of attending a meeting of the Communist Party in Hollywood in 1938. His defense, that he didn’t get to Hollywood until four years later and, thus, could not have attended the meeting in question didn’t keep the committee from demanding that he name the people who did attend.
As an "uncooperative witness" Mostel, like many others, became unemployable in his chosen profession despite the fact that he was never charged with, let alone convicted, of any crime. Years later, when his career had revived, he had what has become one of the most famous of his encounters. As the star of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which was in pre-Broadway tryouts and was in need of changes, he was asked by the producers if he could work with Jerome Robins who Mostel believed was a genius but was also one of those who had "named names" before Congressional investigators. Mostel famously responded, "Of course I can work with him. We of the left do not blacklist."
The play was written and originally performed by Jim Brochu, an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mostel, even without the makeup and a hair comb-over he uses when on stage in the role. I once walked into Sardi’s restaurant on 44th Street in New York and saw Brochu holding forth in the most prominent seat at the most visible table having dinner following a matinee performance. For a moment it was like I had fallen into a time warp seeing Zero Mostel himself back in the restaurant where one of the events related in the script took place. It would not have surprised me if someone had approached him during that dinner and asked, "May I have your autograph, Mr. Mostel?"
Mitchell is a big man like Mostel was, and he proves himself capable of the kind of bombastic behavior that marked the star. But he doesn’t look a lot like Mostel and he and director Zina Bleck have made the smart decision not to try to use makeup to recreate the image of their subject. Instead of an effort to recreate the appearance of the man, Mitchell uses the script to attempt to give us a chance to see beneath Zero’s surface, to get to know the man himself. In this, he succeeds.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.