REVIEW: “Zero Hour” — Inland Valley Repertory Theatre (IVRT)

Zero lived large. No, make that huge.


For two days only, May 11th-12th at 7pm, IVRT presents “Zero Hour,” a solo performance featuring Frank Minano, directed by Cate Caplin, and edited and designed by Spencer Weitzel. Technical crew includes Amanda, Donna Marie and Katherine Minano, and assistant direction by Hope Kaufman.


The 2006 production, originally written and performed by playwright and actor Jim Brochu, personifies the tumultuous life of the late Jewish actor and comedian Samuel Joel “Zero” Mostel through a fictional interview with an inexperienced reporter shortly before Mostel's death in 1977.

In relation to the setting, "Zero Hour" takes place in Zero’s West 28th Street painting studio. Arthur, a naïve New York Times reporter, arrives to interview the famously volatile star right before Mostel leaves for out-of-town tryouts of a new play based on the tales that inspired Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Zero, haunted by a manic persona and a dread of an empty or unexpressed moment, boorishly says in the play’s initial moments: “So what’s this interview for anyway, putz? Why do I call you putz? I call you putz because I don’t know your name. No, I don’t want to know your name. This is an interview, not a relationship.”


Arthur, who remains unseen to the audience, triggers an exothermic reaction of memory, humor, outrage, and backstage lore which include Zero’s theatrical triumphs, his fulfilling marriage, his tales of outwitting the HUAC by not naming any names in his testimony, the resolving of his love-hate relationship with director Jerome Robbins, the traffic accident that almost ended his career, being blacklisted and out of work for 10 years, and his lengthy estrangement from his unforgiving mother.

A lifelong admirer of Mostel, Brochu wrote the show during intermissions of another show he was working on, finding inspiration not only in his sense of humor, but also in the adversity Mostel faced, including his parents' rejection of his marriage to a Catholic woman.


Brochu's script depicts Mostel’s anguish while visiting his mother on her death bed after being shunned for many years. The offense was marrying a schiksa. He brought his then eight year old son, in a suit, to meet his grandmother for the first time. But drawing her last breath she denounced them. It was a stunning theatrical moment.


We also felt his pain through the fifteen operations when his leg was crushed by a New York bus skidding on ice. He later walked with a cane, but never on stage.


The result was an absolutely ingenious solo performance premiering at the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood, California, and winning the 2006 Ovation Award for "World Premiere Play," and beginning a limited Off Broadway run at St. Clement's Theatre beginning November 14, 2009 and running through January 31, 2010. Bochu also won the 2010 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance then.


With righteous rage, Brochu’s playscript rails about the persecution of Jewish liberals. He rants about the traitors, like renowned director Elia Kazan. Mostel also detested Jerome Robbins but reluctantly worked with him when he was brought in for Sondheim’s foundering “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Ironically he states that he was the third choice for the role of Pseudolus in “Forum” which was also the case for Tevye in “Fiddler” and Max Bialystock in “The Producers.” Viewed as a last resort, he turned these into classic roles. But it also conveys the depth to which he was regarded as a wild card and not to be trusted.


Mostel was like an out of control freight train but could pull up to a dead stop and evoke the most tender and delicately nuanced insight and poetic moment. All the more startling as it came from this raging bull of a man.


His penchant to become bored with scripts and ad lib terrified fellow actors and struck fear in the hearts of producers and directors. Apparently Gene Wilder was totally intimidated when they met on the set of the cult classic film “The Producers.” Breaking the tension, Mostel planted a smacker of a kiss on the stunned Wilder and they became fast friends from then on.


Now, IVRT’s co-founder Frank Minano brings Zero Mostel miraculously back to life, not only in the flesh with a perfect comb-over noch, but in his complete, complex, indomitable, inventive, imaginative and generous…not to mention, bullying, spirit.


Mr. Minano also nicely conveys another­­ private hidden aspect of his artistic makeup. He loved to be alone in the studio pursing his first passion painting. Alone, he was thoughtful, studious and quiet, but if there were people around him, he used comedy to make himself the center of attention. Zero studied art at CCNY and after graduation gave gallery talks at Manhattan museums where audiences not only encouraged his humorous comments, but hired him at $3-5 per gig to entertain at private parties. By 1941 he was a regular at Café Society, where stars like Billie Holliday headlined. Within months Zero was the headliner Café Society at a salary of $450 per week. In 1943 Life Magazine declared him “just about the funniest American living.”


It is estimated that he left a legacy of 10,000 paintings. He was the complete creative artist: a serious painter, an incomparable clown, a stand-up comic with perfect timing, and an actor and mimic who could transform himself into almost any one or object with the aid of only his plastic face and supple body.


When he performed, he performed with every ounce of his body and persona, evoking emotion or squeezing out a laugh with a glint of the eye, tilt of the head, flinging arms or inflection of that pipe organ of a voice. And, very much like Mostel (but without the body mass), Frank Minano was able to either mince like a pufta in this production or pirouette with the panache of a ballerina on the turn of a dime. All of which kept us utterly mesmerized and entertained for a robust ninety minutes. "Zero Hour," currently enjoying a two-day virtual showing from Inland Valley Repertory Theatre, starring Frank Minano, representing a fully embodied Zero Mostel, in a performance so full of depth that you feel like you've just spent a couple of hours with the stage legend himself. For tickets to the May 12th performance online, please go to www.ivrt.org


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report