Zero Hour

Jim Brochu
The Peccadillo Theater Company
Theater at St. Clement's New York
(2009)

Sometimes it is hard to believe that a writer can fit so much information into a play that lasts only 90 minutes plus interval. Jim Brochu, who also performs, has chosen as his subject a man who, like a cat, seemed to have nine lives - and every one of them worthy of elaboration on stage.

Brochu starts with the advantage that he manages to look and sound like Zero Mostel, effortlessly catching the quirky mannerisms and Jewish intonations of the comedian turned actor.

This is a performance of ironies. A play about an archetypal Jew is performed in a church. Add to that Mostel's most famous performance came in Mel Brooks' The Producers, an experience that its star hated from start to finish. Then there is his love-hate relationship with choreographer, director and arch-denouncer of all things Commie, the cowardly Jerome Robbins.

Back to the beginning though. With the assistance of his own director, actress Piper Laurie who proves herself well up to the task, Brochu moves around an artist's studio littered with abstracts, telling his life story to an invisible journalist, while painting a portrait firmly rooted in the Picasso school.

The early years were typical of a second generation Jewish boy born in Brooklyn to aspirational Viennese parents with artistic leanings. Things changed, as the boy's obsession with painting took over life and, together with a (second) marriage to a Catholic actress, began to shape a future on stage.

First, Sammy Mostel discovered an aptitude for what we now call stand up comedy. Soon, with the help of Louis B. Mayer, his career moved into the movies and then to Broadway.

However, this always politically active man then faced a significant hurdle, related with touching pain as he and his friends were investigated by that "firing squad of fear" the House Un- American Activities Committee.

Mostel faced his ordeal and what he called "an intellectual final solution" with that trademark humour but others were less fortunate and, for some, suicide seemed the only option.

This divided the acting profession and in the case of Zero Mostel, his initial nemesis was a man whom he had never met but became personified in the squealing Jerome Robbins.

If this decade-long trip into the acting wilderness wasn't a bad enough blight, when the rehabilitation started an out-of-control cross-town bus very nearly finished the job, necessitating fifteen operations to save our brave hero's left leg.

After all of that, Zero Mostel enjoyed the best years of his career (ironically often in harness with Robbins) as he travelled "from the blacklist to the White House in ten years". First came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then a role made for him, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof before that unforgettable film role of Max Bialystock in The Producers.

Jim Brochu paces the story well, gives his audience lots of laughs and then hits them in the solar plexus with the bad times. This solo show has already won awards out of town and deserves to augment them in New York.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher