NEW YORK — Comedian and actor Zero Mostel was a very funny and at times very angry man, known for his loyal friendship and volatile personality.
Actor Jim Brochu has created a very funny, at times very angry one-man play, "The Zero Hour," in which he captures the essence of Mostel while revisiting a dark period in American history.
Directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Piper Laurie, the humor-laden yet thoughtful production is now playing off-Broadway at the Theatre at St. Clement's.
Whether sitting at a table or hurling himself around a re-creation of Mostel's beloved watercolor-painting studio, Brochu gives an enthusiastic, unrestrained performance as the outsize, opinionated, triple Tony Award-winning actor.
He looks uncannily like Mostel, complete with weirdly forward-combed hair, bulging eyes and a wide range of expressive stares and wild gesticulation.
With wonderful comedic timing, Brochu covers highlights of Mostel's life by having his character give an often intense, occasionally true interview to an unseen, unheard newspaper reporter. Brochu repeats the question, then launches into his version of the answer.
The dialogue is peppered with well-timed jokes and near-constant humor. But Brochu also depicts Mostel's serious outrage at the U.S. House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the early 1950s. The hearings resulted in blacklisting people, primarily in the performing arts, after they were named by others – truthfully or not – as having been communists.
Brochu's Mostel tells emotion-laden stories about friends whose careers and lives were ruined by the blacklist, which meant they couldn't get work. He bitterly discusses some individuals who ratted on friends and colleagues, caustically referring to the man who named him, along with more than a 150 other people, as "the Babe Ruth of stool pigeons."
In the play, Mostel characterizes the HUAC hearings as a government-sponsored attempt to eradicate the influence of Jewish artists, writers and directors on the general public. Mostel rhetorically asks the reporter, "Why were they targeting actors? Did they think we were giving acting secrets to the enemy?"
Although Brochu has said the play is a tribute to Mostel, he doesn't hesitate to show the darker side of his complex subject. While Mostel speaks lovingly to the reporter about his wife, Kate, he yells nonsense at her and slams down the phone whenever she telephones him during this interview.
He addresses the reporter's inquiry about him being difficult to work with by telling backstage stories about the films and plays he worked on, citing instances in which he was, in fact, difficult – airily explaining how his repeated failures to "stick to the script" improved things. When the reporter yet again questions his version of history, Mostel demands incredulously, "You're asking an actor for the truth?"
Zero Mostel died suddenly at age 62 in 1977. Brochu's living restoration has brought Mostel's larger-than-life personality back into the spotlight for a laugh-filled, much-welcomed presentation.
"The Zero Hour" runs through Jan. 31.