In “Zero Hour,” the Barrington Stage Company’s current production of Jim Brochu’s marvelous evocation of the life of beloved Broadway and film star Zero Mostel, all the right components are in place, the aim is true and the entire evening is on target every step of the way. Who could asks for a more rewarding evening of theater than that?
As an accomplished actor-playwright, Brochu (who wrote and starred in “The Big Voice: God or Merman” two years ago off Broadway and appeared with Christine Ebersole in “Brigadoon”) couldn’t have a better subject for his talents than the original Tevye of “Fiddler on the Roof” and Max Bialystock of the Mel Brooks’ film “The Producers.” The ample Brochu not only fills the shoes, shirts and pants of the legendary performer, but has the delicious facial tics and stinging sarcasm down pat. He also knew Mostel personally, who he met through his mentor, the Broadway star comedian David Burns, during the run of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
So Brochu wrote “Zero Hour” as a tribute to the performer, whose outrageous behavior could delight audiences while exasperate on-stage colleagues and friends. And with some carefully placed eyeliner to highlight Mostel’s exaggeratedly expressive eyebrows, some dark tint to the edges of a greying head of hair and some adjusted girth around his midsection, Brochu transforms himself into the wild performer at age 62, as he is about to embark on a promising new role, that of Shylock in British playwright Arnold Wesker’s riff on Shakespeare called simply “The Merchant.” Highly anticipated for the upcoming Broadway season in 1977, Mostel would only play one performance of the show–at its tryout in Philadelphia–before dying of a heart attack.
Brochu captures the actor as he probably would like to be remembered, as a prolific artist privately working away in his studio in 1977 just before rehearsals begin for the new role. Mostel pursued art as a career before veering into show business and time in his studio was always a priority. A one-person show, “Zero Hour” has Mostel gradually opening up for an unseen New York Times reporter, who will get to experience the Broadway star in all of his joshing, edgy, passive-aggressive and cantankerous glory. Brochu paces the play with clever deliberation, as his irreverent character moves from easily dismissing the visitor to gradually warming to the writer and letting down his guard. What results is a compelling portrait of a larger-than-life man who treasures the response he can achieve from his audiences (the moment in which the young Mostel discovers that his stand-up comedy routine can make people genuinely laugh is touching) and yet uses humor to distance himself from the difficulties that plagued his personal life and his career. He would become a sought-after comedian, appearing in several stage productions, ultimately landing a contact with MGM and appearing in “DuBarry was a Lady,” before growing disillusioned with Hollywood.
Perhaps nothing was as severe in his life as the outright rejection he experienced at this hands of his parents who disowned him for marrying his second wife, a Gentile, the long-suffering Kate, who became his partner, his muse and mother of this two sons, one of whom he named “Josh.” As we learn in a stunning, heartbreaking scene, that rejection would last until his mother’s dying breath, when she forced him and his son out of her hospital room with a furious “No, no, no, no!”
Mostel was also famously a victim of the McCarthy era. He explains that he was blissfully unaware that he had been blacklisted when all of a sudden he stopped being offered new jobs. It took a fellow actor to break the news to him, which exacerbated the seething anger that was already boiling just beneath his surface. Brochu conveys this aspect of Mostel’s personality exquisitely, with tension rising from his twisting fingers to a climax where teeth are bared and forehead pronounced. Mostel is eventually called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, where he not only refuses to name names, but disguises his contempt through an entertaining routine before he ultimately pleads the Fifth before being dismissed from the hearing.
Brochu recounts Mostel’s return to the top of his profession in the late 50’s and 60’s, as friends like Burgess Meredith and the more understanding theatrical community bring him back into the fold, notably in a wildly successful off-Broadway adaptation of James Joyce called “Ulysses in Nighttown.” The stories about how Mostel narrowly escapes participation in several long-forgotten Broadway turkeys of those years are delightful, once thanks to an out of control MTA bus during a Manhattan snowstorm, prior to achieving major Broadway success again in Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”
From there, Brochu follows Mostel through “Forum” and ultimately “Fiddler,” but still shadowed by the ghosts of the blacklist, in the person of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins who did name names to the Committee, which Mostel understandably finds difficult to forgive. Although their relationship is restricted entirely to the production, Mostel does acknowledge Robbins as a directoral genius, who literally saves his life, as memories of his parents’ rejection threatens to derail his award winning opening night performance as Tevye.
In yet another ironic moment, Brochu has Mostel express his dissatisfaction with the film “The Producers,” regretting that he will probably be remembered as a film actor for portraying such a dishonest, smarmy character that Mostel clearly did not like (even though as we all know he played it beautifully). Little did he know that Max Bialystock would become one of the most beloved characters of all time and inspire one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the 1990’s. He would have been amazed.
Performed in one act without an intermission, “Zero Hour” also proves that the veteran Brochu can be a marvelous director as well. He maintains a forward moving pace that matches his rollicking character’s delivery, while sustaining audience eagerness at each new aspect of Mostel’s career. The playwright in Brochu assures that the exposition never seems extraneous or unnatural; it all flows quite plausibly out of the interview situation so nothing seems strained.
And if the evening’s printed program is any indication, Brochu may actually be a quadruple threat. There’s no set designer listed, so one wonders that the creation of the artist’s studio is also of the actor-playwright-director’s is Brochu’s work as well. Sure its not as dirty or messy as such a place might be, but with the canvasses edging the stage, an easel here or there, we do feel that we are in the midst of Mostel’s cluttered yet coveted retreat from the difficult realities of showbiz.
“Zero Hour” is a rewarding, fulfilling tour de force that, while indeed showcasing Brochu’s multiple talents, is careful to shine the spotlight equally, if not more, on the memory of Mostel, reminding a new generation of his monstrous talent and almost as monstrous an ego and forcing us to face what the theatrical world lost by his untimely passing. It’s rare to see an actor channel a character as well as Brochu does and we are indeed delighted to be able to experience the great Mostel even for slightly over 90 enthralling minutes.
“Zero Hour” runs at the Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA, through June 5, with performances Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15- $39, with senior tickets at $25 for all matinees. Youth 18 or under or students with a valid ID are $15 for all performances, except Saturday evening. For further information and tickets, visit barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413.499.5446.