By Nadine Epstein and John O’Leary
When does a Communist equal a liberal equal a Jew? Today, if you delete the word “Communist.” But the phrase was most applicable in the 1950s during the heyday of McCarthy with the blacklisting of actors and writers, who most often just happened to be Jewish. An endless supply of provocative anecdotes about this era shine throughout “Zero Hour,” the one-man play about Zero Mostel, written and performed by Jim Brochu, that is now playing at the DCJCC in Washington, DC, and will travel to off-Broadway in New York from November 14 to January 31.
Among the most memorable is a story about his drinking buddy Lucille Ball, who starred with Mostel in his first Hollywood film in 1942. Calling it an “intellectual final solution” Mostel says of the blacklist that it “targeted Jewish minds.” In 1936 Ball had registered with the Communist Party in order to vote for Eugene Debs, and the House Unamerican Activities committee had a copy of her signed registration card. But when called before the committee, Ball explained that she had only registered as a Communist to please her grandfather and was sent home. “Her ordeal started on Monday and was over on Friday. But not so if your name was Berman, or Choderov, or my dear friend Philip Loeb.” It was Mostel and his Catholic wife who took in a Loeb after he lost his job on The Goldbergs. It was Katie Mostel who made the despondent Loeb breakfast on the morning he checked into the Taft Hotel where he killed himself. “Talking about stars on the sidewalk,” Brocha says, reflecting on Loeb’s tragic end.
Alternately heartbreaking and riotous, always illuminating, “Zero Hour” reveals a brave, strong and eccentric Zero Mostel, who stood up to the House Unamerican Activities Committee with comedic panache, and a determination not to respond to questions probing his or his friends’ political affiliations. Brocha makes the late actor’s ups and downs come alive. One can only be delighted to learn of Samuel Joel Mostel’s good fortune to see his career come roaring back “on the Way to the Forum ” and much more.