In the entertaining Zero Hour, now at St. Clement’s Church, writer-performer Jim Brochu impersonates girthful, mirthful actor Zero Mostel so accurately that his performance is tantamount to a reincarnation. From head to toe, he’s got it right; he has Mostel’s ludicrous yet somehow distinguished pushed-forward hair-do; he moves with Mostel’s light-footedness; he has the facial expressions that include eyebrows traveling far up the forehead; and he has those famed busy-busy hands and booming voice.
The show, smartly directed by Piper Laurie, has Mostel giving an interview at his 28th Street studio to an unseen reporter from The New York Times — although over the course of two voluble acts, Mostel doesn’t leave much room for the journalist to ask many questions. Indeed, Mostel packs enough in to make a hefty start towards a comprehensive autobiography.
Bouncing around the room and even executing a fresh watercolor before he dismisses the visitor, Mostel begins his story at his birth: he was Samuel Joel and born to parents who disowned him when he married a non-Jew. He then covers his early engagements as a comic and reminisces about the salad days at Barney Josephson’s Café Society, where he mimicked sleeping butterflies and told silly jokes in order to afford his first and enduring love: painting.
Declaring himself “an angry man,” Mostel later fulminates over the House Un-American Activities Committee and obliging witness Jerome Robbins, whom Mostel confides he never forgave — even though he was able to work with the director on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof “because we put the creation above our individual differences.” Mincing no words (although sometimes comically mincing), Mostel claims in his outrage that the HUAC sessions were “an intellectual final solution to eliminate thought” and, furthermore, were an attempt “to eradicate the Communists, but Communist equaled liberal and liberal equaled Jew.” He cites the mild wrist-slap Lucille Ball received as part of the evidence for his belief that anti-Semitism was in play and cites close friend Philip Loeb’s suicide as a good part of his abiding fury.
All is not vengeful blasts in Zero Hour, however; in Brochu’s hands, Mostel is often belly-laugh funny. Indeed, there’s a show-business saying that insists it takes a star to play a star. By that reckoning, mark down Jim Brochu as a truly big star.