From Bert Lahr to Jack Gilford, among the most beloved of Broadway performers are “character actors” — those who play quirky and eccentric characters, often in supporting roles. With “Character Man,” Jim Brochu pays tribute to the character actors of yesteryear (many of whom were Jewish) who made an indelible mark on the theater. The one-man show opened last week Off-Broadway.
Brochu grew up in a Catholic family in Brooklyn. His father was a stockbroker; one of his clients was David Burns (né Bernstein), who originated the role of Senex in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Burns got the boy a job selling orange drink for Golub Brothers, the firm that had the concession for all the theaters.
After debuting in Israeli playwright Ephraim Kishon’s “Unfair to Goliath” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Brochu went on to a long career as both a playwright and actor; his most recent show, “Zero Hour,” a valentine to Zero Mostel, won the 2010 Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance.
Among the songs that Brochu performs in “Character Man, which is directed by Robert Bartley, are “If I Were a Rich Man” (Mostel’s signature song from “Fiddler on the Roof”), “Meeskite” (Gilford’s number from “Cabaret”), “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” (from “Forum”), “It Takes a Woman” (introduced by Burns in “Hello, Dolly!”) and “Go Visit Your Grandmother” (from Burns’ last show, “70 Girls, 70.”)
“You may not remember the names of character actors,” Brochu told The Jewish Week, “but as soon as you see their faces, you recognize them.” He feels extraordinarily lucky to be able to preserve the memory of those whom he dubs the “Jewish knights of the Round Table” and to be, as he put it, “a link in the chain.”
Is the character actor a dying breed? Many character actors, Brochu observed, did not achieve success until relatively late in their careers, and he wondered if young actors nowadays have the patience and staying power that they did. Also, he noted, there are few playwrights and composers who write the kind of shows that made the character actors famous. “People want to write important plays,” he reflected, “rather than character-driven comedies.”
Nevertheless, old shows still need character actors in order to be revived; Brochu pointed to the upcoming Roundabout production of “Cabaret,” in which Danny Burstein (“South Pacific” and “Follies”) will appear in Gilford’s role. “You always need a character actor to support a star,” he concluded.
“Character Man” runs through March 30 at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St. Performances are Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 5 p.m. For tickets, $35, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444; www.smarttix.com.