If it takes a star to play a star, then toss some stardust on Jim Brochu, who brilliantly shines in Zero Hour at St. Clement’s Theater. Starring and written by Brochu, this new solo work is a kind of homage to Zero Mostel, the legendary actor who left an indelible mark on American theater.
Brochu, who first met Mostel backstage in 1962 during the run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, learned first-hand that Mostel never minced words or tolerated fools.<!–more–> In spite of the actor’s lacerating tongue, however, Brochu had a deep admiration of Mostel. This show draws upon that genuine feeling.
Zero Hour invites you to be a time-traveler through a wide swath of the 20th century. We eavesdrop on stories of Mostel’s boyhood on the Lower East Side, where he acquired his nickname “Zero,” purportedly an average of his elementary school marks. His penchant for stand-up comedy was quickly noticed by theater personalities as he shuttled from the Borscht Belt to Manhattan’s upscale supper clubs in the 1940s. Beyond café society, his big break in New York was performing the lead in Ulysses in Nighttown, an adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. This was followed by his literally transforming role from human to hoofed pachyderm in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Success had landed with a heavy thud all right. But both acts would be topped by his incredible turns on Broadway in Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, which firmly cemented Mostel’s stardom in the 1960s.
Curiously, the most compelling scenes in Zero Hour are the evoking of Mostel’s “blacklist” years and his love-hate relationship with Jerome Robbins. Mostel, whose testimony before the House of Un-American Activities Committee was highly publicized and career damaging, found it difficult to forgive Robbins for divulging to the committee names of theater professionals. Nonetheless, we see here how Mostel eventually was forced to come to terms (sort of) with Robbins, when the director-choreographer saved Forum from being a Broadway flop in 1962.
Brochu knows he is treading on hallowed ground here. But this biographical show never overreaches. Wisely, he doesn’t attempt to outdo his inspiration. In fact, he basically plays his voluble role sitting behind a small desk—dressed in a nondescript shirt, neck scarf and pants—finessing a portrait of the naïve reporter who is interviewing him. Yet during those scenes when he is re-enacting key moments from Mostel’s career, Brochu will raise his eyebrows to an incredulous height, affect a dramatic pose and give us a crackling glimpse of one of the actor’s routines. Under the apt direction of Piper Laurie, this is a bioplay, not a rehashing of Mostel’s classic performances.
Along with praise for the piece, I must say that a bit more music or some actual footage of video recordings from Mostel’s original stage performances would add more zest to the evening. The set design by Josh Iacovelli is suitably ragtag and has that devil-may-care aura. But for all its Bohemian atmosphere, a fleeting glimpse of the real Zero Mostel on screen might serve as effective punctuation to this production.
Still, Brochu is as theatrically right as he can be here. And by being intelligently himself, Brochu gives us a mesmerizing portrait of Mostel.
Through Jan. 31
Theater at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th St.
Tickets, $35 to $55, are available at 212-239-6200 or
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