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Zero Hour

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jim Brochu
Photo by Stan Barouh.

The risk with any solo bioplay is that the subject, who probably became famous because of special distinction or unusual talent, may be reduced to nothing more than a flimsy string of messages and epigrams. (Have you ever seen a Dorothy Parker show that didn't sound exactly like every other one?) Jim Brochu displays obvious affection for Zero Mostel in his new play Zero Hour, which just opened at the Theatre of St. Clement's, but he spends so much time falling into exactly these traps that we never get to know the real man behind the imposing image.

Brochu, who last appeared Off-Broadway three years ago playing himself in The Big Voice: God or Merman?, has got the impersonation down pat. He's packing the requisite physical bulk and the wide-as-Montana whites of his eyes are on full display throughout. His voice possesses the properly self-deprecating New York Jewish charm. And whether Mostel is sawing through the air with his hands, raging against those who've done him wrong or the infelicities of fate, or warmly rhapsodizing about his marriage or painting pursuits, Brochu fully embodies his character's irrepressible and unpredictable spirit in his portrayal.

If only there were some in his writing. Brochu has loaded his play with one-liners that seem intended to identify Mostel as the ultimate always-on comedian, but they hardly portray him as a dynamically original comic genius. Examples include "Close the door behind you, you're letting the flies out"; referring to London: "God, that's going to be a beautiful city when it's finished"; "My life is an open zipper"; and, when answering the phone, "Palestinian Anti-Defamation League, this is Yasser speaking." And that's just the first half of the first act! Are you laughing yet?

Timing, as they say, is everything, and Zero Hour doesn't have it. Piper Laurie's direction is not electrically inventive - how could it be, given that the show's weak conceit is of a New York Times reporter interviewing Mostel in his West-20s artist's studio (acceptably designed by Josh Iacovelli), just a couple of months before his 1977 death? But the bigger problem is that the story Brochu tells probably isn't the one that most people will be interested in hearing. If you're expecting lots of juicy anecdotes surrounding Mostel's acclaimed performances in Rhinoceros, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or Fiddler on the Roof, forget it - for all intents and purposes, the show is about Mostel's blacklisting.

The subject consumes at least the last 20 minutes of Act I and the first 10 minutes of Act II - about a third of the show's running time. There's no question that Mostel's persona non grata status through almost all the 1950s played a major role in his life. But there are only so many ways to approach the subject dramatically. Once Brochu has recreated Mostel's HUAC testimony, articulated in great detail the suicide of a similarly shunned friend, and loudly declaimed the whole thing as an anti-Semitic conspiracy, the course has been well run - and the sequence is far from over. It even returns at length later in Act II, when name-namer Jerome Robbins enters the picture and reignites all the old fires.

There's nothing wrong with dwelling on a difficult subject, of course, but the play's title suggests a lighthearted romp through Mostel's tumultuous career, not an endless rant about red hunting. But there's no time left for anything else. We learn only incidentally that Mostel's mother disowned him for marrying outside Judaism - because this directly mirrors events in Fiddler, it could act as a passionate and powerful anchor for exploring Mostel's relationship to faith. A life-altering bus accident that almost claimed Mostel's left leg is almost shoehorned into the narrative, and is definitely underrepresented if it was as serious as Brochu claims.

It's in these more commonplace instances that real potential lies for insight and delight. But the rest of the play, so driven by agenda politics, is not automatically entertaining. Or, for that matter, informative. In order to inject a perennial laugh line into the second act, Brochu references Larry Gelbart's classic barb, "If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a new musical." But many sources (including The New York Times) insist that referred to the 1961 flop The Conquering Hero, not Forum, as Brochu claims here.

Such embellishments make this already hard-to-like play even harder to trust. Exquisite as Brochu is at embodying Mostel, one can't help but wish he'd drop all the prefab pretenses on which Zero Hour is built and instead relate the stories that really need telling. We all know that the blacklist was bad, but few of us are privy to the intimate details of Mostel's life - why not travel the less-familiar road? As Mostel learned the hard way, there are fewer crushing buses on out-of-the-way thoroughfares.

Zero Hour
Through January 31
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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