There are two ways to approach Zero Hour, Jim Brochu's world-premiere one-man play about Zero Mostel. First, one can look at it in terms of accuracy: Brochu certainly manages to look like Mostel (right down to the scary-looking comb-over that has taken over his forehead). He sometimes, although not always, sounds like Mostel. And as for historical accuracy, the show seems largely correct in terms of biographical information, although details may be fudged. (Did Mostel really tell Mel Brooks he should make a musical out of The Producers?)
Of course, the fudging of details is actually a part of Brochu's approach to Mostel - as a larger-than-life man who was prone to exaggeration in word as well as action. Indeed, the show itself - which is structured as an interview in which Mostel not only answers the reporter's questions, but decides what it is that he ought to ask - acknowledges that Mostel's memory might be factually inaccurate, but Mostel waives off the reporter's corrections as irrelevant to whatever points he was trying to make.
Which leads to the second way to approach Zero Hour. Set aside whether Brochu's play is a reasonable approximation of what we would have seen had we been flies on the wall at a 1977 interview. Consider, instead, how it functions as a work of theatre.
First, it's funny - sometimes tremendously so. Once or twice, I found myself not only laughing out loud, but shaking at the memory of the joke several minutes later. This was particularly true when Brochu reenacted small bits of Mostel's nightclub act, but Brochu also got laughs with Mostel's quick-witted smart-assery during the interview. ("Jewish dietary laws are very strict. Pork and shellfish may only be eaten in Chinese restaurants.") But this Mostel doesn't always go for the laugh; his temper can ignite instantaneously, and sometimes his quick shifts from open and friendly to full-voiced insanity are themselves funny.
But the play isn't always funny. A lot of what this Mostel has to say isn't funny at all. (Once or twice, the opening night audience laughed at something that didn't seem the least bit humorous, as though Brochu had switched gears so quickly, the audience hadn't yet caught up.) But the heart of the play - one might even say the bulk of the play - isn't about Mostel's Broadway career, or his personal life, or even his near-crippling bus accident; it's about the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the victims of blacklisting.
In today's world, McCarthyism is sometimes used as a reference point in challenges to current government curtailments of personal liberty. Zero Hour doesn't look at blacklisting with a scholar's eye or any historical detachment. It is an intentionally subjective and painful recounting of a time in our history when careers were destroyed, lives were up-ended, and the artistic community was decimated. Brochu's Mostel talks about blacklisting with no less intensity than he would speak of the Holocaust. And although this sort of exaggeration is often, by its own overstatement, unpersuasive in reasoned debate, it works here, because Brochu has it come out of the mouth of a character who is so unrestrained in his speech under any circumstance, and who was so personally victimized by blacklisting, he pretty much dares you to call his reactions invalid.
And, minutes later, he's singing, "If I Were a Rich Man." Line by line, Zero Hour is a well-constructed play, with later bits linking back to earlier set-ups. Yet, overall, it feels like it's covering too wide a ground too fast, and the discussion of Fiddler on the Roof comes off as a mandatory addendum, as though Brochu realized that you can't write a play about Mostel without mentioning Tevye. Watching Brochu attempt to recreate Mostel's performance pulls the play back into "impersonation" territory, when it was much more potent as a piece of theatre that had something to say.
Zero Hour runs at the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood through August 13, 2006. For reservations, see www.westcoastjewishtheatre.org.
West Coast Jewish Theatre presents Zero Hour. Written and performed by Jim Brochu. Directed by Paul Kreppe. Set and Lighting Design by J. Kent Inasy; Marketing and Publicity by David Elzer/Demand PR. Stage Manager Harold Wolf; Music & Sound Steve Schalchlin; Costumes Brendan James; Technical Operations Danny McCabe; Set Construction Danny McCabe.