When Jim Brochu makes his entrance as Zero Mostel, his visage is eerily reminiscent of Al Hirschfield’s New York Times caricature of Mostel as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Though his vocal timbre and inflections are more evocative of comic Dom DeLuise than of the thickly sonorous Mostel, Brochu admirably embodies the flamboyance, mood swings and dead-on comic timing of this legendary yockmeister. On the minus side, Brochu overburdens the action with deeply emotional but redundant diatribes on Mostel’s 1950s blacklisting by the HUAC that come off more as lecture than bio fare.
Helmed by Paul Kreppel with an astute understanding of Mostel’s larger-than-life persona, “Zero Hour” is set in the actor’s art studio/personal sanctuary on Manhattan’s West 28th Street. Under the guise of a 1977 interview by an unseen New York Times reporter, Brochu’s Mostel flails through his life and career, unabashedly thrusting the reporter into whatever role suits his immediate fancy, be it sounding board, artist’s model, foil, confidante, enemy or pal.
Brochu is at his best when demonstrating Mostel’s ability to level an audience with his exquisitely executed emotional booby traps. When interrupted by an unwanted phone call, Mostel showers vitriolic contempt upon the villainous interloper who would dare invade his sanctum sanctorum. He slams down the phone, then calmly intones, “My wife wants me to bring home sour cream.”
Piece is chockfull of captivating Mostel bio tidbits –his early desire to become an artist (including his studies at City College of New York), his first real comic outing in 1941 at the downtown nightclub Cafe Society (on the same bill with Billie Holiday), his courtship and eventual lifelong marriage to former Rockette Kathryn Harkin (whom his orthodox family completely rejected), his never fully realized film career and his transcendent career on Broadway.
It is with impish delight that he admits he was the third casting choice for both of his Tony award-winning musicals, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (after Milton Berle and Phil Silvers) and “Fiddler” (following Danny Thomas and Danny Kaye).
But the show’s sense of jocular give-and-take comes to a grinding halt when Brochu ventures into Mostel’s Oct. 14, 1955, testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, wherein he would gladly discuss his own conduct but was prohibited by religious convictions from naming others. His subsequent blacklisting lasted 11 years.
Brochu and Kreppel are so intent on highlighting the ills that Mostel suffered that they shortchange the positive creative energy this comedic genius imposed on the world. A serious rethink of the show’s objectives could give “Zero Hour” some needed legs.