Monday, November 23, 2009

Zero Hour

I knew nothing about Zero Mostel before seeing this show, but Jim Brochu brings that theatre legend to life so vividly that by the time the play was over, I felt I had known Mostel personally for years. And that he was right there with us. That’s how convincing Brochu’s performance and appearance are in Zero Hour, which opened last night in the Theatre at St. Clement’s.

Piper Laurie directs this one-man biographical play, which was written by Brochu. Set in 1977 in Mostel’s painting studio (he was an artist as well as an actor), the play unfolds under the device of having Mostel tell his life’s story to a New York Times reporter who has come to interview him.

Brochu, with a white beard, full arched black eyebrows and ample girth, looks amazingly like Mostel. He sits at a table painting, recounting his larger-than-life story, moving to the side for intense flashbacks.

At first I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through an hour and 50 minutes. Mostel’s nonstop one liners grow tiresome quickly, but I wanted to hear what he had to say about blacklisting, that nightmare time that left him out of work and his dear friend, Phil Loeb, dead of suicide. “He died of a sickness called the blacklist,” Mostel says with fury.

“Why were they targeting actors,” he asks rhetorically. “Did they think we were giving acting tips to the enemy?”

In his mind it was anti-Semitism, pure and simple, an “intellectual firing squad” by those who equated communist with liberal and liberal with Jew. “It’s hard for you to imagine the climate of fear we lived in then.”

For 10 years he couldn’t work as a comedian, so he painted. “They can’t stop creativity itself,” he declares.

The greatest target of his wrath is Jerome Robbins, the Broadway director and choreographer who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Interestingly, though, Robbins ended up having a positive effect in Mostel’s life once Mostel was able to resume his career after the decade away from show business. He was starring in the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was bombing on the road. In Philadelphia, “The audience sat there like we were doing Death of a Salesman.”

The show was rewritten, but still wasn’t working when it moved to Washington. So producer Hal Prince and director George Abbott asked Mostel if they could bring in Robbins to fix the show. Mostel described the three as “Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Evil,” but he agreed and Robbins saved the show, which became a hit on Broadway.

This experience was repeated again when Mostel was starring as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. The show was on its way to being a flop until Robbins was brought in. “The little weasel, he’s a genius,” Mostel had to admit.

These and other showbiz stories make Zero Hour fascinating, but we also learn about Mostel’s childhood on the Lower East Side with his immigrant parents, Orthodox Jews who disowned him for life after he married a Catholic Rockette, and the chilling account of how he almost lost his leg when an M-86 crosstown bus skidded out of control on a snowy night, slamming into him as he was getting out of a taxi, crushing his left leg. He remembered the whole experience, seeing the bus head toward him and the horrified faces of the passengers when they realized what was about to happen. Then the sounds of metal crashing and bones breaking, and the blood everywhere. Amazingly, through 15 operations over six months, his doctors were able to saving his leg. And the bus driver visited him in the hospital, bringing ice cream, and the two became friends.

The play takes us only to the day in July of 1977 when Mostel is giving his final interview before leaving for the pre-Broadway tryout of The Merchant in Philadelphia, and doesn’t go into what followed, that Mostel only played one performance as Shylock before his unexpected death at the age of 62.

In his lifetime, Mostel won Tonys for his performances in Fiddler on the Roof, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Rhinoceros.  His film credits include “The Front,” “Rhinoceros,” “The Hot Rock,” “The Great Bank Robbery,” “The Producers,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

This extraordinary life is well captured by Brochu, with help from Josh Iacovelli’s nice set of the artist’s studio and Jason Arnold’s lighting, which shifts the time between Mostel’s present with the interviewer and his past. Zero Hour captivated me, who knew nothing of Mostel’s life, and it also charmed someone who did know him. I had been happy to see Frances Sternhagen, the esteemed actress and two-time Tony winner (and two-time Broadway Blessing participant), sitting behind me. We had a nice chat during intermission, but talked of other things rather than this play. As we were leaving, though, her companion said to her, “Was that the Zero you knew?” And she answered ardently, “Yes. Oh, yes, definitely.”

Zero Hour will continue at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. (between Ninth & Tenth Ave.)  through Jan. 31.
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit

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