Zero Hour

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Editorial Review

Jim Brochu Ably Brings The Hero to 'Zero Hour'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

Here we are, back at Madame Tussauds's School of Drama. You may recall some of the other recent exhibitions: Valerie Harper at Arena Stage as Tallulah Bankhead ("Looped"), Emily Skinner at Signature Theatre in the guise of Mae West ("Dirty Blonde").

The fascination with celebrity impersonation goes on and on. And actors, being actors, seem to love nothing more than slipping into the skins of other actors. So now, the writer-performer Jim Brochu is moving among us, as the embodiment of the great Broadway clown Zero Mostel, in a polished if predictable solo show at Theater J.

As these impressionist acts go, "Zero Hour" has the virtue of verisimilitude. With his ample frame, expressive eyes and hair forced forward to cover a thinning scalp, Brochu looks spookily like his subject, for whom he's written the piece as a heart-engraved valentine. The vocal inflections, too, are absolutely impeccable. If you close your eyes, you'll swear you hear the Mostel of Brooklyn and Broadway, the late star who forever put a stamp on two of the plum roles of musical comedy's golden age: Tevye the Milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Pseudolus, the conniving Roman slave, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Brochu's Mostel, perched in set designer Luciana Stecconi's rendering of his New York art studio -- Mostel was an accomplished painter -- reports that to his utter misery, he's destined to be remembered for another performance: as the swindling Max Bialystock, in Mel Brooks's beloved movie "The Producers." (With a straight face, the Mostel of "Zero Hour" informs his invisible interlocutor, a reporter who has come to profile him for the New York Times, that the movie makes him look fat.)

Aping Mostel's impish charm -- those rolling rogue's eyes! -- and replicating his surefire timing, Brochu proves to be a worthy keeper of Mostel's outrageous flame. Yet for all its admirable authenticity, "Zero Hour," directed by actress Piper Laurie, is burdened by the ancient conventions of this biographical genre: the laundry list of family problems, the career retrospective, the resume bullet points. The show's pretext itself -- the sitting for a celebrity interview -- is artificial, a bit too convenient, especially if you've seen anything of this variety before.

Mind you, Mostel is a meaty subject, as more than one biographer has already discovered. We encounter him late in life, presumably the year of his death, 1977, at the age of 62. (He says he's just filmed a cameo on "The Muppet Show," which occurred that year.) But the dramatic core of "Zero Hour" occurs 20 years earlier. Brochu builds his account around the defining trauma of Mostel's life, his 1955 subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the enabling instrument of the nefarious blacklist era.

Being on the list made it impossible for him to earn a decent living for about a decade, and as "Zero Hour" posits, it reinforced Mostel's overarching perception of life as a slap in the face. As Brochu declares, after yet another demonstration of Mostel's volcanic nature, "Anyone who's been excluded is angry."

That anger emerges as barely contained sarcasm in Brochu's re-creation of Mostel's appearance before the committee, a panel whose investigations ruined the lives of several of Mostel's friends -- and manifested itself for him as a merciless assault on Jewish intellectuals. Still, Mostel's most venomous feelings are reserved for a fellow Jew: the celebrated stage director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, who did name names, and in Brochu's telling earned Mostel's eternally withering contempt.

That enmity provides the monodrama with a decent payoff. As fate would have it, the careers of Robbins and Mostel would intersect after the hysteria of the '50s died down, when Robbins was brought in to doctor the troubled out-of-town tryout of "Funny Thing." Brochu reenacts a backstage moment in which Harold Prince and George Abbott, the musical's producer and director, gingerly approached Mostel with the news that they want to bring in Robbins.

Mostel takes the high road: "We on the left don't blacklist," he explains, in acceding to the request. But maybe, too, it was an act of self-preservation. No star wants to see his name above the title of a flop.

"Zero Hour," which is scheduled to begin an off-Broadway run in November, may be too formulaic to honor fully the memory of the mold-breaking actor it enshrines. Still, in his meticulously calibrated portrayal, Brochu pays Mostel the next best kind of compliment.

Zero Hour by Jim Brochu. Directed by Piper Laurie. Lighting, Jason Arnold; sound, Chris Baine. About 1 hour 50 minutes.