BWW REVIEW: Jim Brochu Returns With Drama Desk-Winning Mostel Tribute ZERO HOUR
When playwright/actor Jim Brochu was announced as the 2010 Drama Desk Outstanding Solo Performance Award winner for his loving tribute to the great Zero Mostel, ZERO HOUR, circumstances of the evening set up an opportunity for him to open his acceptance speech with an incredibly funny, totally filthy line involving something Mitzi Gaynor supposedly told him to do.
It was the sort of off-the-cuff brilliance that was typical of Mostel himself, proving just how in sync the talented actor is with his subject. (Mitzi Gaynor has gone on record as being delighted with the attention, by the way.)
ZERO HOUR now makes a return to Off-Broadway, with an engagement at Theatre at St. Clement's, courtesy of the Peccadillo Theater Company.
"Go away! Back, back... there's plague here," the large figure with his back to the audience growls at whoever is knocking at his door.
"I'll unleash the dogs," he warns with a familiar animation in his voice before turning around and revealing his full face and figure to the audience. And at that moment you'll be forgiven if you think you're seeing a ghost. With his long white and grey beard he resembles the ghost of Tevye, the dairyman more than that of Pseudolous, the Roman slave or Max Bialystock, the Broadway producer, but in manner, voice and mind he is unmistakably Zero Mostel.
A man of Mostelian girth sporting that unusual comb-over that somehow resembles a crown atop his head, Brochu strikingly looks the part. Add to that the soothingly soft voice that can abruptly explode into a volcanic bellow, the graceful light-footedness and that flexible face featuring eyebrows that can arch on demand and you have a remarkably accurate recreation.
Directed with simplicity by Piper Laurie, Brochu sets his play in Mostel's West 28th Street art studio (designed with appropriate clutter by Josh Iacovelli), where the great actor and comedian, who always considered himself to be a painter first, would spend his most creatively fulfilling hours.
The play has been shortened considerably since 2010 - now playing without an intermission - so it's no longer specified that the year is 1977 and he's about to leave for Philadelphia to begin out-of-town tryouts for Arnold Wesker's THE MERCHANT, a pro-Jewish reimagining of Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE which he would perform in only once before dying from an aortic aneurysm.
But the premise remains that he's being interviewed by an unseen reporter for a New York Times feature. ("All the news that's fit to print, eh? That's what we used to say about Goya. All the nudes that are fit to paint.")
The scenario allows us to see Mostel as the public remembers him; an outrageously larger than life figure who is continually performing and will do anything for a laugh. His humor can straddle the border of good taste (He answers a phone call with, "Palestinian Anti-Defamation League, this is Yassir speaking.") and often gets downright smutty (a joke about a visit with an army doctor is a classic) but Brochu, in both his text and performance, never allows us to forget that this is a man who has been hurt deeply and uses jokes as both a defense and a weapon of attack.
He talks of being disowned by parents for marrying a gentile, a situation that would haunt him as he prepared to play a father who rejects his daughter for the same reason in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
There are happier stories of his courtship with his second wife, Kate, and of his early career as a stand-up, performing with Billie Holiday at Café Society, but the event that dominates his life and the play is the Red Scare of Senator Joseph McCarthy, which led to Mostel and many of his colleague friends being blacklisted. The playwright/performer recreates Zero Mostel's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the most fascinating part of the tale is how the actor was able to put politics aside when producer Harold Prince and director George Abbott approached him about having Jerome Robbins, who named names before the committee, come in to help fix A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM when the musical was having a shaky out-of-town tryout.
While the performance and the play are both thoroughly engaging, those who saw the previous two-act version may find this one a bit incomplete. For example, although he still discusses how the blacklist led to the death of his dear friend, actor Phil Loeb, the section where he talks about his experience playing a character loosely based on Loeb in Martin Ritt's "The Front" has been cut.
But even in this shortened form, ZERO HOUR effectively paints a portrait depicting the artist as he might like to be remembered; brilliant, defiant and highly entertaining.