Zero Hour

Obnoxious can be funny if it's safely on the other side of the footlights. One is grateful for that unbreached fourth wall in "Zero Hour," which has Jim Brochu reincarnating the force of nature known as Zero Mostel.

Obnoxious can be funny if it’s safely on the other side of the footlights. One is grateful for that unbreached fourth wall in “Zero Hour,” which has Jim Brochu reincarnating the force of nature known as Zero Mostel. An autobiographical monologue disguised as an interview with an unseen reporter, the one-man show visits Mostel just before his abrupt 1977 demise. Scheduled for Gotham early next year, the modest but engaging solo show stands a good chance of connecting with older theatergoers for whom the subject’s name still carries currency.

A larger-than-life personality who would be unbearable if he weren’t just as entertaining as he thinks he is, Mostel is found in his dingy “sanctuary” of a studio — painting being a lifelong passion, even more than performing.

Brochu (Off Broadway’s “The Big Voice: God or Merman?”) first impresses with his striking physical resemblance, contrived via a two-tone beard, comb-over and facial expressions. But it’s his motormouth, seldom on any setting less than Maximum Rant, that cinches the impersonation.

Alternately (when not simultaneously) insulting, generous, enraged, polite and sentimental, Mostel starts out by calling his New York Times guest “putz.” When that offends, he kindly switches to “schmuck.”More-or-less chronological recap of the thesp’s life and times dashes through his childhood, early career as a nightclub comedian, ditched first marriage, lasting second one (though he seems to view wedlock, like everything else, in combative terms), abortive first stab at Hollywood and bright prospects as a stage actor.

That was put in deep freeze for a full decade, however, when he was blacklisted along with many other entertainment-industry leftists during the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts. This “intellectual Final Solution,” which particularly targeted Jews, provides the evening with its dramatic core — and seemingly provided Mostel with a bottomless well of bitter fury.When Mostel’s career finally revived — roles as Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses in Nighttown” Off Broadway and in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” were the start — his greatest triumphs found him most grudgingly reunited with Jerome Robbins, who had “named names” to save himself. (After recounting how he confronted the choreographer and his “loose lips” at the start of a rehearsal period, he allows, “You know, that little weasel is a genius.”)

Genuinely appreciative as he is toward some colleagues, Mostel is also resentful, pointlessly volatile, perverse — and often knowingly very funny while acting out.

A casting third choice for his defining triumphs, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” he admits he loathed the former (but couldn’t refuse its sky-high star salary) and thought the latter “wasn’t much.” (Anecdotes about how drastically both were revamped during tryouts are fascinating.)

He hated “The Producers,” his best-known film, apparently because he thought he looked like a fat slob in it. (No argument there.) Then again, he rages over the unpardonable offense that he did not get to play Tevye again in the “Fiddler” movie.

For all the volatility deftly captured and bottled by Brochu, Mostel’s restless mind can’t stop cracking jokes, either, or impeccably timing every hairpin turn in mood or volume for comic effect.

Brochu’s text is compact and colorful and Brendan James’ direction tight, but the production’s design elements (pretty much limited to some shifting lighting emphases and occasional background sound snippets) are modest. Does the studio (for which no set designer is credited) have to look that drab?

Zero Hour

New Conservatory Theater Center, San Francisco; 131 seats; $40 top

  • Production: A New Conservatory Theater Center presentation of a play in two acts by Jim Brochu. Directed by Brendan James.
  • Crew: Lighting, John Kelly; production stage manager, Travis Clarke. Opened, reviewed Nov. 10, 2007. Runs through Nov. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.
  • Cast: <b>With:</b> Jim Brochu.