All things come to those who wait. Having somehow inexcusably missed actor/writerJim Brochu's award-winning play "Zero Hour" that depicts the controversial life and career of Zero Mostel, I was able to see the show's most recent revival at the Theatre at St. Clement's which is just off Broadway. The show is presented by the Peccadillo Theatre Company, which specializes in staging worthy productions in the prestigious venue that is just off Broadway. For Brochu, the one-man show is a triumph.. He wrote the script himself and the production is directed with flair by three-time Oscar nominee Piper Laurie. Mostel was a larger-than-life talent and he is played with uncanny skill by Brochu, who somehow makes himself into the spitting image of the iconic actor (he doesn't bare the slightest resemblance to Mostel off-stage). The imaginative scenario finds the entire play set in Mostel's New York painting studio in 1977, shortly before his untimely death at age 62. (It was news to me that painting was his real passion and that he considered acting a sideline that paid the rent.) When the story opens, Mostel welcomes a New York Times reporter who is there to conduct an interview. "Welcomes" is perhaps not the proper word: Mostel addresses the unseen writer with a barrage of insults and quips that appear to be only partly said in jest. As Mostel unveils the story of his life, he is simultaneously busy painting a portrait of his guest. He relates his humble beginnings in Brooklyn and his respect for his hard-working, honest father. His parents were Orthodox Jews and his mother never forgave him for marrying outside the religion. The strained relationship apparently lasted until his mother was literally on her death bed and she refused to greet Zero's young son Josh because he was the product of a mixed marriage. Much of the show covers Mostel's diversified acting career, which came about quite accidentally. He was on a trajectory toward fame and fortune when he had the misfortune of falling under suspicion during the McCarthy era. Called before a committee with a demand to save his career by naming colleagues who were alleged to be communists, Mostel refused. Consequently, he was blacklisted for years with devastating effect on his psyche, not to mention his finances. Mostel airs his grievances against those artists who "named names", such as Elia Kazan and up-and-coming legendary Broadway director Jerome Robbins. Years later, however, he would work with Robbins despite his personal revulsion of the man because he recognized he was an artistic genius.
During the 90 minute production (played without intermission), Brochu's intense performance makes you think you are actually watching Mostel himself. He rails, rants, raves and charms. Mostel was capable of making crowds laugh uproariously but at the same time was known to be a challenge to work with. Mostel addresses these character flaws in the story, admitting some faults but denying others. One must keep in mind that the show is not an objective overview of his career simply because it presents Mostel relating his own version of his personal history. He tells fascinating stories about his most famous roles in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and as the original Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"- and denounces the film version of the latter because he wasn't asked to star in it (allegedly because he was too difficult to work with) He also dismisses his cinematic triumph in Mel Brooks' "The Producers", saying that he hated the film because "I looked like a beached whale". If all Brochu offered was the Mostel who possessed a volcanic temper, the show would be unbearable. Who would want to spend 90 minutes with such a boor? However, he also shows us Mostel's softer, sentimental side especially when it came to him remaining loyal to the people who stood by him during the blacklisting years. (Burgess Meredith is singled out for praise as is his friend, Philip Loeb, who committed suicide because he was blacklisted). Mostel also proudly embraces his liberal political views, repeatedly pointing out that he agreed to have Jerome Robbins hired for his plays because to not do so would have been the equivalent of blacklisting - something Mostel felt the political left should never be responsible for. Strangely, the play doesn't make mention of Mostel's final film appearance in the 1976 movie "The Front", a scathing indictment of McCarthyism that was created by people who had been blacklisted (director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein and Mostel, among them.)
"Zero Hour" is a remarkable achievement about the life of a great talent whose name is in danger of fading into oblivion. If younger people know who he is it's largely because of "The Producers"- if they even know about the film. However, for now, Mostel's and legend are alive and well on the stage of the Theatre at St. Clementine's. The production runs through July 9. Don't miss it- this is New York theater at its very best.