“Now, I hate when I hear that. I hate when I hear, ‘Oh Mostel, doesn’t stick to the script.’ That’s absurd. I’ve always said every word the author wrote. I never moved a comma. I might add something once in a while to enhance the moment.”
— Zero Mostel
Zero Hour is an informed, absorbing, highly entertaining one-person play written by and also starring Jim Brochu. It happily serves not only as a showcase for the actor but also as a delectably insightful homage to the great comic/dramatic actor Zero Mostel. It is often meant as a compliment to say that an actor has gotten the essence of the real-life character that he may be impersonating. It is with a particular, if almost uncanny, distinction that Brochu does much more than that — just short of bringing Mostel back to life.
Although perhaps better known as a performer, Mostel’s passion since childhood was painting. The play takes place in the loft on the top floor of 51 West 28th Street that he called his sanctuary. Set designer Josh Iacovelli has nicely evoked this with a clutter of brushes and tubes of paint on shelves, an easel with a half finished painting on it, a few work tables, and a couple of chairs. The repeated rings of the doorbell are responded to with anger. “Go away or I’ll call the police” shouts the portly man in a blousy blue shirt and a scarf around his neck. He sits with his back to us. Of course it is Zero Mostel who stands up and turns to welcome a reporter (that’s us) with, “So what’s this interview for, putz?”
At times he bellows like the rampaging rhinoceros he played in Ionesco’s absurdist play. At other times he is prompted to temper rage with humor and show contempt with heart-felt compassion, all part of his inscrutably incendiary personality. There are black streaks through his grey hair and a blackened mustache that create a devilish look-just the look to help characterize the man that Brochu so gingerly embodies. He is grousing and we are laughing as he orders us to pose. . . “turn a little to the left,” then the insults (never mind them) and the interview begins. He stops on occasion to paint in fits and starts.
Mostel’s story from Brooklyn to Broadway by way of the Borscht Belt is encrusted with dollops of humor and also with episodes of heartbreak and despair that reveal Mostel as an extraordinary artist on stage and as an angry man in life. But he can’t resist the jokes, and there are plenty, that are punched out with Mostelian panache. His marriage to a “Catholic Rockette” is a wonder but his “two words” relationship with her mother is not for publication.
Mostel, who is indelibly associated with creating the role of Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and Pseudolus, the scheming Roman slave in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” not to mention playing Max Bialystock in the original film version of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” had an impressive career. It is also one that was irreparably marred by being called to testify in 1955 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That chapter, in which he and other “Jewish intellectuals” were destined to be blacklisted, serves as the emotional core of the play, particularly Mostel’s remorse and reactions to the tragic death of his also blacklisted best friend, Phillip Loeb (Jake in the TV series “The Goldbergs”).
Mostel is particularly savage in his denunciation of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, who testified and named names to the HUAC. Ironically, Mostel would have to veil his contempt for Robbins (he nicknamed him “loose lips”) when they are temporarily forced to work together during the shaky out-of-town tryout of “A Funny Thing…”
The interview takes place on the eve of Mostel’s appearance in “The Merchant” in 1977. He was 62 when he died of a heart attack after the first out-of-town performance. It would be easy to forget perhaps that Brochu’s play and his perceptive performance owe much to the precisely paced direction of Piper Laurie. Although Laurie is known to many of us of a certain age as a lovely B-films star in the 1950s, it is her subsequent theater and TV career that brought her accolades and a long overdue appreciation of her talent. She has been a guiding force for “Zero Hour” from its inception in 2005 through its development stage and its initial runs in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. There is no question that the force was with her as it is with Brochu’s portrayal. ***
“Zero Hour,” through Sunday, January 31, the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street. $35 and $55. 212-239-6200.