“Everything is less than zero,” sang Elvis Costello in 1977, and if anyone would have wholeheartedly agreed, it was Zero Mostel. Jim Brochu paints a remarkably sympathetic portrait of the famously egomaniacal performer in his solo show “Zero Hour,” about the life and times of a guy who survived everything from the blacklist to a disagreement with an out-of-control bus and still managed to thrive. Writer-performer Brochu, who’s been doing the show for years, nicely mimics Mostel’s blustery style and tosses off an assortment of the actor’s best Borscht-belt gags into the bargain.
“You must stop masturbating,” Mostel’s doctor tells him about halfway through the show. But why? Mostel wants to know. “Because I’m trying to examine you!”
The screechy, bellowing cadence Brochu uses to blast the audience with this punchline gives us pretty much everything we need to know about the show’s version of Mostel in less than a second: willfully obnoxious, obscene whenever it suits him, but oddly anxious to please people even if — maybe especially if — it makes him look like a buffoon.
Brochu’s knack for characterizing Mostel is somewhat more interesting than his avatar’s hand-wringing over the blacklist, which comes off as a little sanctimonious, discussing it in the same breath as the Holocaust. Which is not to say that section of the play lacks interesting, eerie moments. When Feds walk into Mostel’s apartment and stand there looking around, saying nothing, Brochu evokes the kind of prickle on the back of the neck usually delivered by David Lynch movies.
The career-wrecking nastiness of the blacklist keeps popping up as the play moves forward, coming to a head twice. First, there’s Mostel’s wonderfully disrespectful testimony before the HUAC, then there’s his strained reunion with former informant Jerome Robbins.
Brochu might have teased out the implications of the latter a little more. Nobody watching the play will have anything good to say about McCarthyism unless Ann Coulter takes an interest in left-leaning bioplays. So wouldn’t it be more interesting to go further into Mostel’s ambivalence about having his career singlehandedly saved by the choreographer of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fiddler On the Roof?”
Ultimately, though, the play works whether or not Brochu’s script searches Mostel’s life for nuance and color. Under the direction of Piper Laurie, his performance has plenty of both; the end result is frequently funny and always engaging.