A solo show is a difficult thing to pull off. It is a monumental task for one person to keep an audience engaged for a whole show, and the line between wonderful and dreadful is razor thin. But in Zero Hour, Jim Brochu proves he is well up to the challenge. He tackles the complex and contradictory life of Zero Mostel with a flourish that is captivating from the moment the lights come up. Brochu, who also wrote the script, brings this mammoth of the theater back to life for one more night of thought provoking entertainment.
Brochu is as dynamic as the hysterical (in both senses of the word) Mostel, the star of Broadway, film, and TV. The play treats us to an opportunity that may never have existed in life: to be present for an evening in Mostel’s private sanctuary, his art studio. Initially, this setting seemed odd. Why set a play about a famous actor in an art studio? But Mostel is quick to explain that his passion was always painting, and that he only acted “to buy more paint”. I am glad that painting is an expensive hobby, or the world might have been deprived of its Tevye, or Pseudolus or Max Bialystock. And so, we enter Mostel’s inner sanctum. There is, in the play, an unseen and unheard newspaper reporter, asking Mostel questions about his life, but this character seems indulgently willing to let Mostel wander from story to story with few interjections. In this way, the play doesn’t feel much like an interview, but more like watching the inner workings of Mostel’s mind. He interrupts himself, sometimes with a witty line, and sometimes because he appears to have forgotten what he is saying..
Brochu’s performance is a symphony of the wiggling eyes and silly facial expressions which made Mostel famous. From the moment the play begins, we are pulled in to a world of the gregarious, the witty, and the raunchy. His Mostel is both self-deprecating and everyone-else-deprecating. There is more than one joke made at a friend’s expense, but you can tell that it is done with the deepest of love (the same may not be said for the comments about the interviewer’s stature and clothing choices). And, the best part is, all of this is hysterically funny. The writing is marvelously witty, with all sorts of Zero-isms that serve as delightful little breaks in the action. At times the show feels like an extended standup routine, and we would expect no less from a man who got his start as a comedian. It is a particular treat to see reenactments of some of Mostel’s old comedy bits (his much admired impression of “a butterfly at rest” is demonstrated with wonderful flourish, as is his spot-on impression of a tea-pot).
This is not to say that the evening is all one-liners. Mostel was quite a troubled man, and his boisterous persona often gives way to brokenness and anger. The portrayal is manic, an art of extremes, and the versatile Brochu goes from shouting to whispers and back again, sometimes in a single sentence. He captures the devastating effect that being black listed had on the actor. Others may have cowered in fear in front of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. But we watch as an offstage voice delivers the questions, and Mostel, alone in the spotlight, stares down his accusers and uses his signature brand of humor, to soften, but not hide, his indignation at being summoned. Brochu shows us the depth of agony that the Hollywood blacklist caused for Mostel and his friends and the profound sense of anger that he felt towards those who named names. In particular, Mostel rants more than once about Jerry Robbins, but even here we are shown the complexity of Mostel, who tells Robbins, to his face, that he is a traitor who will be condemned by their Jewish faith, and yet later describes the art of the Broadway choreographer as “brilliant”. Brochu does not sugarcoat or simplify but shows a man who is simultaneously strong and broken, a contradiction that I think summed up Mostel’s life.
All this moves us to the main theses of the play, about art and compromise, fear and creative expression, which are very occasionally heavy handed but certainly timely. His descriptions of the culture of fear that McCarthy and his committee created seems deeply applicable to us in the post 9-11 world. Mostel decries limitations on freedom of speech and of artistic expression, lessons that our modern society might just need a refresher on. Mostel’s defense of socialism is notably apropos as we hear that word brandished and misused so often in our modern media. This relevance is especially surprising considering that the play was written in 2006, before the “socialism equals evil” equation made its sudden return into our national consciousness and political discourse. I was also particularly moved by the wistful way in which Mostel reflects on America’s greatest socialist venture, Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration and all of the great arts it funded. As an admirer of the greats, Mostel describes with reverence the impact that public funding for creative ventures had on the artistic legacy of the country, and notes how hard that must have been to pull off in such dire times. Zero Hour reaches from the past to give us commentary on the hard times and tough choices that we face today.
A character like Mostel is like a masquerade costume, intriguing on its own, but made enthralling by the person who wears it. Brochu dons this costume and fills it out in a way that keeps us all engaged. It can’t have hurt that Brochu knew his subject in life, and that they were close at one time. When I read this before seeing the show, I was concerned that this might make it make it hard for the playwright to show his subject objectively, but these fears were unfounded. This insider knowledge serves to deepen the portrayal. And so, he is able to bring this exciting character to life on the stage once again. He shows him, not as a flawless caricature, but as a lively, broken, and enigmatic man. It is a night of deep thoughts and deeper belly laughs, and what could be better than that?
Josh writes a blog about inexpensive DC arts and culture: www.districtbeat.com. Check it out.
Written and performed by Jim Brochu
Directed by Piper Laurie
Produced by Theater J
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