Chances are that even those who know Zero Mostel – from originating the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway or starring as Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks movie, “The Producers” – don’t know much else about him.
“As time goes on, figures like [Mostel] fade Into obscurity unless you are a historian,” says actor and composer Jason Marks. “Modern audiences don’t know how he shaped the fabric of American theater in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Marks, along with the production’s director, Debra Clinton, seek to remedy that situation with the one-man biographical show, “Zero Hour,” running at the Weinstein JCC for just four performances starting Wednesday, March 29th.
“The timing is pretty fortuitous because the play has a lot to do about Jewish identity, feeling targeted because you were Jewish,” says Clinton, who serves as artistic director of the Jewish Family Theatre at the JCC. “It seemed topical because antisemitism really never goes away.”
Mostel was shaping up to be a sort of Jewish Jackie Gleason, starting his showbiz career as a nightclub comedian before World War II, nabbing roles on Broadway and in movies, and having Life magazine call him “just about the funniest American now living” in 1943. But, after the war, his left-leaning politics resulted in him being blacklisted through most of the 1950s.
“There are some really interesting political aspects to his life and his art that I think people will be able to identify with,” says Marks.
Decorated with many awards for his work in Richmond, including the 2012 Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts, Marks has never done a one-man show before. He seems a natural candidate to take on the role of Mostel, though, having played two of his iconic roles: Max Bialystock, in Virginia Rep’s 2012 production of the musical adaption of “The Producers,” and Pseudolus, in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2009.
Still, a straight play with no musical numbers will be a new challenge.
“I love being in musicals – that’s my happy place,” Marks says. “But I don’t have the opportunity to do many plays; I think everybody sees me as Mr. Musical Theater. I wanted to do this to just work on the acting side and really embody the character. There’s so much richness to this piece that it’s been very fulfilling.”
Mostel was a lifelong painter and originally went to college to study visual art. The fictional conceit of “Zero Hour” is that a New York Times reporter has arranged to interview the aging actor in his studio, thereby forcing Marks to learn a new skill.
“I’ve taught myself how to watercolor through this process,” he says. “To be acting and painting, it’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. It’s a great, frightening, and exciting challenge to do it all.”
“The show provides an opportunity for people to see all of the things that Jason is capable of,” says Clinton. “I don’t think people will be surprised, because people know how good he is, but I think they will be stunned at the depth he has as an actor.”
Marks has also made a name for himself as a composer, writing scores to numerous productions, acting as music supervisor on Virginia Rep’s “A Broadway Christmas” last year, and collaborating with Clinton on the full-length children’s musical, “Croaker: The Frog Prince Musical.” “Croaker” premiered in Richmond in 2016 and has been staged in several cities across the country since, with a production in Cincinnati just last month.
Both Marks and Clinton say their close collaborative relationship has been key to bringing “Zero Hour” to fruition. “Jason and I share a common language in how we look at things artistically and in how we approach humor,” says Clinton. “And he trusts me to guide him, which I am grateful for.”
“We both trust each other as artists and as people,” says Marks. “That allows both of us to really focus on the work and create something that’s powerful and special.”
“Zero Hour” runs at the Weinstein JCC, 5403 Monument Ave., from March 29 through April 2nd. Tickets available at https://weinsteinjcc.org/programs/arts-and-ideas/zero-hour/.