Jim Brochu in Zero Hour
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Jim Brochu in Zero Hour
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
In Jim Brochu's entertaining new solo play Zero Hour, the writer-performer gives us a flavorful glimpse at the remarkable life and career of the late, great actor-singer-painter Zero Mostel. Nearly two decades after his death, Mostel is remembered for his indelible accomplishments in such shows at Fiddler on the Roof and Rhinoceros but also for his infamous temper, his volatile behavior, and his tribulations at the hands of Senator Joseph McCarthy's ruthless communist investigation committee in the 1950s.

The show is meant as tribute, though it's scarcely a wart-free depiction of Mostel. The text consists of intriguing biographical and historical tidbits, peppered with Brochu's intermittently successful attempts to conjure up the essence of this larger-than-life clown with a dark side. Meanwhile, director Paul Kreppel's mounting feels like a solid workshop effort in which the characterization could be refined and the mix of anecdotes should be reconsidered. At times, Zero Hour, which runs about two hours, feels less like a play and more like a lecture.

The multi-talented Brochu (co-writer of the hit musicals The Last Session and The Big Voice: God or Merman?) knows whereof he speaks. He often likes to relate an incident during the 1960s in which he asked Mostel for his autograph. According to Brochu, Mostel bellowed back "You're not worthy!" The kicker is that the men were more than casual acquaintances at that point; Brochu had been introduced to Mostel by his own mentor, actor David Burns.

The play begins in Mostel's Manhattan art studio in 1977, as he is preparing to play Shylock in a play called The Merchant. (Mostel died during an out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia.) The premise is that a New York Times reporter has come to interview Mostel; in exchange Mostel insists on painting a portrait of the newsman. (Mostel always called himself a painter who sometimes acts, not vice versa.) In a fully believable development -- based on what we know of Mostel -- the actor takes over the interview, and his bombastic mix of tirades, jokes, digressions, and laments becomes a crash course in his tumultuous life.

Most of the expected details are touched upon: His modest upbringing on New York's Lower East Side with his Orthodox Jewish parents; his miserable first marriage and happier second union; the devastating accident in which a bus ran over his leg, leaving him in excruciating pain for the rest of his life. Midway through the first act, the specter of McCarthyism rears its ugly head, when Mostel and many of his friends were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. These anecdotes are fascinating and heart-wrenching, but so much time is spent on them that we don't get sufficient details on other parts of his life, such as his work in the Broadway shows and his disappointing efforts to forge a film career.

Brochu makes it clear that the bellowing Mostel had a bark worse than his bite, and that much of his aggressive, outlandish behavior derived from his innate nature as a born clown. Yet, when we get a fleeting admission from Mostel at the end about his life frustrations, we find ourselves wishing that more examples had been as well fleshed out as the blacklist business.

Wisely, Brochu avoids impersonating Mostel. There are physical resemblances between the two men, but Brochu realized a too-boisterous portrayal would likely be overbearing, for the same reason Hollywood producers worried that Mostel's persona would look too oversized onscreen. Nonetheless, Brochu captures the all-important wild-eyed look and the actor's idiosyncratic outbursts are fully credible. Yet, it's curious that in the show's one musical-theatre moment, an abridged version of Fiddler's "If I Were a Rich Man," Brochu is far more low-key than than what one hears on the original cast recording.

There is still much work to be done before Zero Hour becomes the gem it could be. But even now, its mix of something for everyone -- comedy, tragedy, showbiz history, and nostalgia -- results in a fresh and inventive piece.