New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Zero Hour"
St. Clement's Theatre, Manhattan

"In a strong, affecting one-man show, actor/writer Jim Brochu tackles the legendary Zero Mostel. Written and performed by Brochu, the show is directed by Piper Laurie (a once-popular actor in her own right). Brochu not only takes on Mostel's story, but he literally climbs into his skin. Though the actor does not exactly resemble Mostel, he is close enough--with tufts of white hair, fierce eyes, and Mostel’s huge bulk. But it is the portrayal, not just the surface attributes, which is so convincing.

Brochu sets the scene in Mostel’s studio (the actor had originally intended to be a painter and, apparently, continued to paint all his life). It is the occasion of an interview Mostel has with a New York Times reporter. He greets the reporter with bombast, insult and fury---in fact, setting the show’s tone. Hurling epithets at the reporter, he adds, “Shut the door. You’re letting out the flies.”

Thus Brochu launches into the story, with one-liners peppering the earnest monologue—sometimes not so funny, sometimes clever and witty. He takes Mostel from his early days, born Samuel Joel Mostel on New York’s Lower East Side, one of eight children of immigrant Orthodox Jews. The monologue continues through Mostel’s two marriages, through his professional years, and finally, into the devastating McCarthy era.

When Mostel divorced his first wife, Clara Swerd (Jewish), who had been a City College classmate, and married Kathryn Harkin, a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette and a Gentile, his parents were devastated. “They considered me dead. They covered the mirrors, sat shiva, threatened suicide,” he summarized. Not even years later, when his mother lay on her death bed, and he brought his infant son Josh to see her, would she succumb. “No!” she said, waving him toward the door. But Katie, his wife, Brochu/Mostel explained, turned him into an actor.

Mostel, who had attended a graduate program in art at New York University, went on to teach drawing and painting at the 92nd Street Y. There was no thought of acting at that point. But his comic style, constantly joking with his students, inevitably led him toward stand-up comedy and an acting career. Mostel made his professional debut at Café Society in 1941. It was there he acquired his nickname, when the Club’s press agent said, “Here’s a guy who’s starting from nothing.”

But it is the second act, when Brochu spells out the McCarthy era and its effect on Mostel, that the show has its most powerful—and most
attention-grabbing--moments. No longer bombastic, the actor sits quietly at a table, answering questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In the exchange (which Brochu presumably took from actual records), the politicians come off as fools, Mostel as brilliant. Ultimately, as Brochu spells out, the years would bring Mostel triumph upon triumph, in film, stage, television—with such shows as “Ulysses in Nighttown,” “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” the wonderful “Rhinocerus” and, ultimately, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to he Forum.”

And now, in “Zero Hour,” Jim Brochu offers a fine tribute to this legendary man of the theater.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 26, 2009

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