The Zero Mostel Show: Zero Hour
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 20, 2009
Jim Brochu looks very much like Zero Mostel: he's a large and powerful-seeming man, and with a full beard, big bushy eyebrows, and thinning hair combed over just so, the resemblance is uncanny. Brochu has clearly studied Mostel's outsized mannerisms, too, and throughout Zero Hour, the one-man play he's written for himself about Zero Mostel, there are frequent glimmers of the film portrayal of Max Bialystock in the original Producers and the performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (which I was fortunate enough to see, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., just before Mostel died).
But—alas—only glimmers: I never felt that I got very close to Zero Mostel in Zero Hour, and neither does Brochu attempt an outright impersonation—he does not recreate the moments we savor in Mostel's career, save a snippet of the obscure song "Chava" from Fiddler, a very brief impression of a rhinoceros (an allusion to the Ionesco play of the same name), and a repeated bit of comic shtick from Mostel's early nightclub act that regrettably falls flat each time it's executed. Indeed, the only really important decade of Mostel's career (roughly 1958 - 1968, taking in his work in Ulysses in Nighttown, Rhinoceros, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Producers) is given relatively little stage time here, relegated to a too-quick segment near the end of the second act.
Brochu instead has chosen to focus in Zero Hour on the Blacklist of the 1950s, which Mostel was certainly a part of, though perhaps not its most prominent victim. Much of the play shows us Mostel infuriated by the McCarthy Era's effects on friends like Philip Loeb or railing against Jerome Robbins (with whom he would nonetheless work, on both Forum and Fiddler) for naming names, including that of Madeline Lee, the wife of his good friend Jack Gilford. Mostel's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee is presented, presumably verbatim, at the top of Act Two.
The Blacklist is important and still resonant. But Brochu doesn't provide much context for his inclusion of it here, and—not to diminish its impact on Mostel's career and life—it is not what audiences most remember about his subject. Having Mostel dismiss The Producers with a single comment (to the effect that he didn't like it because he looks fat in the film), for example, is unsatisfying in a show like this: I wanted to know more about what the actor thought about working on such a subversive (in its day) work of satire.
Brochu's writing is less careful than one would wish, as well. The account of Loeb's suicide, for example, contradicts the contemporaneous report in The New York Times. Structurally, Zero Hour is awkward. The framing device is that a Times interviewer is meeting Mostel in his studio (where he paints) for an article related to his forthcoming show The Merchant. But Brochu's Mostel is consistently rude to this influential interviewer, and is apparently surprised that he has come to meet him at all (is there no publicist for this Broadway-bound play?). The Merchant is barely mentioned at all. And Brochu's method of revealing key facts is often clumsy, with Mostel repeating the unseen interviewer's questions and then answering them. The piece progresses linearly through its subject's life, which makes it easy to follow but not always illuminating.
Brochu's performance is energetic and busy, but I didn't feel that he brought Mostel to life. Now, I am pretty sure that this is the first time I've had the experience of seeing a one-person show about a person whom I actually saw on stage myself—so it's possible that I'm less able to be objective here. But the Zero Mostel of Zero Hour feels much smaller than the one I remember from Fiddler 30-odd years ago.