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"Zero Hour" Is a Fascinating Time

Zero Hour
Directed by Piper Laurie
Written by and starring Jim Brochu

Consummate actor, painter and personality Zero Mostel  was a presence in American films and stage for decades, except for a brief hiatus called McCarthyism. Zero was iconoclastic, cynical and flip. He scowled and shouted in a voice that was stentorian.

Jim Brochu’s one-man show, directed by Piper Laurie, brings him to life, eyes piercing out of a gray-bearded jowly face, recreating his physical presence and attitude, and most importantly his passionate political commitment to honor at a time when theater people and others were selling out their colleagues.

The story Brochu recounts is fascinating, and his performance is riveting. The device is an interview with a New York Times journalist. "I don't want to know your name,” Zero snarls. It's an interview not a relationship.” The interview takes place in a studio on West 28th Street, the top floor of a building Zero owned in what was once known as Tin Pan Alley. Zero wears a blue artist’s smock and dabs at a painting. The set creates intimacy at the same time that it highlights a central and not widely known element of Zero’s life.

Zero Mostel was devoted to art. He had no training in theater and became a performer by accident. In the thirties, he was hired by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, for those who don't know history) — along with such painters as Jackson Pollack and Moses Sawyer. Later, he gave art lectures filled with jokes. That led him in 1941 to appearances at the night club Café Society, in Greenwich Village. He was wildly funny, on stage and off. He was manic. He got people helpless with laughter. Some of that comes through in Brochu’s performance.

But most of the stage story is political. Zero was a Marxist. Brochu/Zero says that "Anybody with half a brain was, because of what was going on in Europe:  fascism."

That made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s crusade against free speech in 1955. "Are you a communist?" he was asked at a hearing. "Well, you certainly don’t beat around the borscht belt, do you? No, I am not a communist," Zero replied.

"Are you in favor of the violent overthrow of the government?”" he was asked, in a question that violated the First Amendment protection of free speech, not to mention thought.

Zero replied, and the text is from his testimony, "Well, sir, as our fourth president, James Madison, for whom they named a lovely hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach once said, 'I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by silent and gradual encroachments by those in power rather than by violent and sudden usurpations.'"

Zero and a handful of artists stood up to the Committee. But the people who ran Broadway and Hollywood were men of little courage. Zero was blacklisted, along with prominent actors such as Lee Grant, Burgess Meredith and Jack Gilford. He excoriates those who named names: the director Elia Kazan, the actor Lee J. Cobb, the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Zero says, "Robbins only went to communist meetings to make connections; to further his career. Hell, he would have joined the Girl Scouts if they let him choreograph a number. He was so weak. And they go after the weak ones, you know. He named us to save himself…. Why were they targeting actors," he wondered. "What did they think we were doing — giving acting secrets to the enemy?"

Zero tells how the Committee targeted actors and Jews. He declared, “That committee of lily-white Protestants marched us in front their firing squad of fear and pulled the trigger on our lives and our work. It was an intellectual final solution to eliminate thought; they couldn’t kill our bodies — they had done a damn fine job of that already — so they decided to obliterate our minds. And they targeted Jewish minds.”

Zero tells the appalling story of Phil Loeb, the actor who played Jake on the TV sitcom The Goldbergs. He recounts, "He lived his life practicing the greatest principal of America — that all people were created equal and should be treated that way. Even actors.

"Outrageous! Do you know what his 'Un-American activities' were? He was fighting for black actors to be able to use the same stage door as white actors, he was fighting for equal pay for men and women, paid rehearsal time, hot running water in dressing rooms. Horrible! Despicable!

"So the Committee subpoenaed him and they blacklisted him and they destroyed him and then all of America sat back and said, 'Of course he shouldn’t work. He’s evil. He’s the Jewish devil!' And the man lost everything. And Kate and I took him in and he lived with us. We cared for him. We fed him and we clothed him and then we watched him disintegrate.

"So one morning, Kate made him breakfast, he put on his coat, he said bye-bye, checked into the Taft Hotel and jumped out the window."

Later, Burgess Meredith found a tenement on the lower East side, turned it into a theater, and starred Zero as James Joyce's hero Leopold Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown. The play was memorable, and Zero was so good that producer David Merrick called him to do a Broadway play, The Good Soup. But tragedy struck in 1960, during rehearsals for that play, when Zero’s leg was crushed by a bus that careened out of control on an icy street. The leg was saved, but he would endure frequent pain thereafter.

Still, he continued on the stage and was a triumph in Rhinoceros, the absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco. It had resonance for him: “It’s about conformity. It’s about not becoming a Berkeley [a prominent informer] or a Robbins. It’s about being true to yourself,” he says. Zero virtually morphed from a man into a snorting rhinoceros, mesmerizing audiences and critics.

His next triumph was full of irony. The show doctor brought in to fix A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which would be a smash hit, was Jerome Robbins. The producer asked, "Will you work with him?" Zero said, "Of course I’ll work with him. We of the left do not blacklist."

But he wasn’t forgiving. He welcomed Robbins: "Hiya, Loose Lips. How ya been? Haven’t seen you since 1953 when you gave all those names to the Committee. You haven’t aged very well, Mr. Robbins. Sleeping poorly from a bad conscience? Did you say hello to Jack Gilford over there. Say hello to Jack. You remember Jack — whose wife’s career you destroyed.

"No, don’t apologize, Mr. Robbins. What do you have to apologize for? You’re a hero. You saved America with your testimony. They’ll give you a state funeral when you die. But you won’t be able to be buried in hallowed ground, did you know that? Because the Torah says that informers can’t be buried in sacred ground. Your soul is going to twist and turn forever in the limbo of your dishonor and your spirit will roam the earth for all eternity like a golem. Like a feared and hated golem.”  (Then, all smiles) Now, shall we do the opening number?”

Zero’s triumph was complete in 1964 when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. The next year, he got an invitation to a state dinner hosted by President Lyndon Johnson.

This is a fascinating and important play, not only for its dramatic heft, but for the story it tells about America’s dark days of ideological repression.

Zero Hour
Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
New York City
(212) 239-6200.
Opened November 22, 2009; closed January 31, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Stan Barouh


Live and Become

Chances are, unless you’re a burrowing rodent, you’ve heard stories of Holocaust survivors escaping to Palestine. But raise your hand if you know jack about the breakaway sagas of the Ethiopian Jews. This year’s Ring Family Wesleyan Israel Film Festival seeks to wrest this staggering history from undeserved oblivion with its screening of Live and Become, an epic drama directed by Radu Mihaileanu.

Read more: Live and Become

"Eli" is Coming, But You Won't Want to Go

Directed by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Written by Gary Whitta
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gam
bon, Tom Waits
To say that The Book of Eli is vastly more entertaining than The Road isn't really praise, in the same way that "apocalypse lite" isn't really an endorsement. The movie's ruined America looks grim enough, but damned
if Washington doesn't have the light of the future tucked into his backpack, because... well, because he's Denzel Washington.

Some 30 years after a devastating war, America is one sorry-ass heap of rubble and despair where predatory savages lord it over less ruthless folk and much of the world is sightless, thanks to the searing light that still pours through the hole in the sky left by that last great war.

Unlike the majority of people scratching out a hardscrabble existence in this nasty new world, Eli (Washington) was born "before:" Before "the flash" that stripped away the Earth's vegetation, before water became more precious than gold, before literacy crept to the top of some list of useless skills no one can read anyway.

Eli — whose Zen calm belies his formidable skill with a blade
is a man with a mission, a pilgrim whose manifest destiny is taking him endlessly west. Unfortunately, he's forced to make a stopover in a brutal little frontier town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a constant reader whose love of good books belies his lust for a particular good book... the good book, you might even say, and it happens to be in Eli's backpack. And yes, this is all as obvious as you think: Eli is carrying the last Bible on Earth, and the despotic Carnegie wants it because he knows that when it comes to manipulating the weak, the desperate and the soul sick, no-one beats the guy with the word of God at his fingertips.

As directed by the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) and written by Whitta, The Book of Eli is both derivative (start with Mad Max, Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller Jr.'s 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz) and silly. The look is great, all desaturated cinematography, ruined landscapes and grimly ironic product placements: Hats off to K-Mart, J. Crew, Motorola and the various other companies that were willing to slap their logos on bits of the movie's devastated future ruins. But at its core, the movie makes no sense; the minute you start asking questions like "Why doesn't Carnegie just pull a  and make up his own holy book," it falls apart.

If action-oriented gloom and doom is your thing, you'd do better to dust off your DVD of The Road Warrior a dystopian vision of the future that still packs a remarkable punch than to sit through this portentous nonsense.

 For more by Maitland McDonagh go to

Tolstoy at "The Last Station"

The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry CondonChistopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station follows the last days of Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s most famous writer and a man aware of his imposing legacy to the Russian people, which was at odds with his own family’s well-being and wishes.

Hoffman’s film resembles his earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which starred Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer) in that there’s a pleasing visual palette, several name actors and a sense that Hoffman is afraid to deal with the material’s more troubling aspects and so remains on the surface. That approach could be excused in Dream, since Shakespeare’s play’s comedy is often accentuated at the expense of its nightmarish darkness.

In The Last Station, Hoffman’s uncertainty results in a stilted history and literary lesson and middling cinema. Hoffman and his source novel enter Tolstoy’s world through secondary characters like the charismatic Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), Russia’s leading Tolstoyan, who convinced the elderly writer that he should leave all copyrights of works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the Russian people in perpetuity.

There’s also Valentin Bulgakov (MacAvoy), whom Chertkov hires as Tolstoy’s estate secretary so he can spy on Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Mirren), an intelligent, stubborn woman dead set against the Tolstoyans, whom she considers an illegitimate religious cult, and especially Chertkov, because she distrustingly believes he's having her husband draw up a new will that will leave his family in the dust.

Hoffman wants us to relate to Valentin, our guide. The young man is understandably unnerved meeting the great writer, and if his constant, nervous sneezing grows tiresome—there’s even a scene when, during an argument between Leo and Sofya, Valentin sneezes and both stop to say, “God bless you." So it's plausible that he’s even moved to tears after meeting and speaking with Tolstoy, who queries him about his ordinary life.

But Hoffman stacks the deck dramatically. The inexperienced Valentin falls for Masha (Condon) a headstrong woman who lives on the estate with the Tolstoyans: after she deflowers him one night, he’s smitten. This may be true, but Hoffman errs by having McAvoy overplay Valentin’s incessant bumbling to indicate Valentin’s uncertainty, and ends up with an unsatisfying hybrid of romantic comedy and absorbing backroom drama.

Hoffman is on firmer ground with the Tolstoys’ complicated, convincingly lived-in relationship. The credit for humanizing rather than deifying Tolstoy and his wife Sofya is due to the commanding performances of Plummer and Mirren, who have a rare screen chemistry. Even a throwaway scene in which they cluck like hens and laugh while reminiscing about their younger, more fertile days shows their mastery, together and apart. Mirren is a mite showy as Sofya—who feels she’s been wronged by her husband’s minions, including daughter Sasha—but she’s in splendid form throughout, especially during her snippiest moments, haranguing Chertkov with snappy repartee.

Plummer is even better. This accomplished theatre actor gives it his all as if he’s playing Lear, Prospero or another meaty Shakespearean part. And he might well be: with a long, bushy, scraggly beard and keen, excitable eyes, Plummer plays Tolstoy as the monarch of a kingdom he knows might be crumbling. In a scene with McAvoy discussing an long-ago assignation Tolstoy had with a young woman, watch Plummer’s entire face light up at such a vivid memory, regardless of his life with his wife and family in the years since.

There are too few scenes like that, however, as Hoffman concentrates on the standard romance between Valentin and Masha, even ending the film with their tearful reunion when the great man has died and thrown the whole country into mourning. Opposite McAvoy, Condon is a fiery, sensual Masha, while Giamatti tries without much success to keep pace with these British and Irish actors in a period film set in Russia (but shot in Germany, by the ace cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, who gives us a gorgeous palette of trains, woods and blue skies).

Throughout The Last Station is ivory-tinkling that’s not unpleasant but a little monotonous. Too bad that music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky wasn’t used, since they were contemporaries of Tolstoy; fellow Russian Sergei Yevtushenko’s serviceable score instead keeps the movie mired in mediocrity.

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