Jim Brochu portrays theater legend Zero Mostel at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield

BSC’s Stage 2 season opens with award-winning one-man show Zero Hour

By Lesley Ann Beck

Actor Jim Brochu, who brings his award-winning one-man show about Zero Mostel to Barrington Stage Company (BSC) this week, remembers the day he first met Zero Mostel—it was May 13, 1962, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum had just opened on Broadway. Zero Mostel played the lead, of course, a role for which he won the Tony Award, and, said Brochu, in a recent telephone interview, “I’ve never seen anybody funnier in my life.”

Brochu went to see the show because a family friend, David Burns, was playing the role of Senex. Brochu was thirteen years old and enrolled in a military school at the time; he was wearing his uniform when he went backstage after the show to greet his friend. Brochu walked out onto the stage and bumped into Zero Mostel, who quipped, “Who are you, General Nuisance?”

Brochu wrote and stars as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour, which opens at Barrington Stage Company Stage 2 Wednesday, May 18, and runs through June 5. The off-Broadway production ran for fourteen months and Brochu’s performance garnered him the 2010 Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance and a Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor in a Play.

“Zero kind of inhabits me,” Brochu says, by way of explaining how he came to create Zero Hour. “I stole liberally from him when I became an actor,” Brochu laughs. Brochu maintained his acquaintance with Mostel over the years; at one point Mostel came to see him in an early performance and sent him an autographed photo afterwards, a memento Brochu still has.

Zero Hour is set in Mostel’s painting studio; he painted just about every day. In fact, Brochu says, Mostel considered himself a painter first, working as an actor to support his visual art. Brochu paints on stage as part of his performance; a passion for painting is an attribute he shares with Mostel.

In Zero Hour, Brochu, as Mostel, brushes in hand, reminisces, recounting his fascinating life. Mostel started as a stand-up comedian, which led to his successful acting career. In addition to his award for Forum, Mostel won Tonys for Fiddler on the Roof and Rhinoceros and was nominated for Ulysses in Nighttown. His many film credits include The Front, Rhinoceros, The Hot Rock, The Producers, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

But what I want audiences to come away with, Brochu says, is that Mostel “overcame so many obstacles, professionally, personally, and physically.”

The son of immigrant parents, Mostel grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, in an Orthodox Jewish family, from whom he later became estranged for marrying a non-Jewish woman. In the early 1960s, Mostel was in a serious bus accident and almost lost one of his legs. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle was when Mostel was blacklisted during the 1950s.

“I always call the blacklisting section the spine of the play,” Brochu says. “It affected him terribly. He was always living under the shadow of being investigated. He always felt that the government was still after him.”

For Brochu, who has had a long and varied career in the theater, it made good sense to write a one-man show about Mostel and perform it himself. “As an actor you have to do everything you can to create for yourself. We have to make a living! I tell every young actor, if you can do a one-person show, do it.

Brochu is a prolific playwright, having penned about a dozen scripts, including two musicals. “There’s a side of me that loves to be on stage and another side that loves to be alone, creating characters.” His first published play, Cookin’ with Gus, was written on a bet when he was playing Tevye in Kansas City in 1981, and it is still widely performed.

Although he’s been successful as an actor and as a writer, Brochu is gratified by the attention, and the awards, he has won for Zero Hour. “I have been a working actor for forty-two years but never had this recognition. … It’s just tremendous.”

Barrington Stage Company presents Zero Hour at Stage 2, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, from May 18 through June 5, with performances Tues-Fri. at 7:30, Sat. at 4 and 8, and Sunday at 3. Additional performance on Fri., May 20 at 3; no afternoon performance on Sat., May 21. There will be a post-show discussion with Jim Brochu on Tuesday, May 24. Tickets are $15-$39. Call 413.236.8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.

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