Zero Hour: SF Chronicle

Review: 'Zero Hour' a fitting tribute to theatrical force of nature

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

CRITICS CHOICE

POLITE APPLAUSE Zero Hour: One-man drama. Written and performed by Jim Brochu. Directed by Brendan James. (Through Nov. 25. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. One hour, 45 minutes. Tickets: $35-$40. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.)

Jim Brochu must have had a charmed life. Not only did he grow up knowing Ethel Merman, he also had a fairly long friendship with Zero Mostel. No matter how many other theater legends he's known, it's almost impossible to top that combination.

Actor and playwright Brochu made good use of his Merman intimacy in "The Big Voice: God or Merman?," the long-running off-Broadway hit he co-wrote and performed with his partner, composer Steve Schalchlin, delightfully reprised at New Conservatory Theatre Center earlier this season. Now he's back at NCTC in a pre-New York run of "Zero Hour," a one-man tribute to Mostel for which he won a best-play award in Los Angeles last year.

It isn't as beguilingly disarming or original an effort as "Voice." "Zero" is a more standard famous-person portrait with the usual thin excuse to explain why the subject is telling his life story (the audience is a reporter come for an interview). Brochu's effort to re-create and sustain Mostel's boisterous unpredictability, quick wit and eruptions of real and assumed outrage can seem artificial and mannered at times.

But it's an impressive tour de force for the most part (Brochu should get some kind of award just for keeping his eyes bulging in the Mostel manner), a fitting tribute to an irreplaceable force of theatrical nature and a suitably outraged account of the cultural and political purges known as McCarthyism and their invidiously anti-Semitic effect. It's also an often eye-opening account of Mostel's life, from his childhood ambitions to be an artist (he often said he was a painter who acted to support his family), work as a stand-up comic (and how Samuel Mostel acquired the nickname Zero) to the accident that crushed his left leg just when his career was reviving after a decade of being blacklisted.

The interview-play takes place in Mostel's cluttered studio (he sketches as he talks) in 1977, on the eve of rehearsals for Arnold Wesker's "The Merchant" (later retitled "Shylock") - a few months before Mostel died, at 62, after the first preview in Philadelphia. Mostel is peremptory, anarchic, outrageous, reflective, furious and very funny; Brochu peppering his script with the great comic's best quips. He's also touching, recounting the deep pain of being disowned by his parents for marrying a gentile and the abiding sorrow of losing his best friend, the actor Philip Loeb, who committed suicide after his career was destroyed by the blacklist.

There are few insights into Mostel's actorly art, his amazing transformation into a rhinoceros in Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" or his creation of Tevye's intimacy with his God (and some of his lyrics) in "Fiddler on the Roof." There are also stories that may be apocryphal, such as his tirade at Jerome Robbins, who'd named names, when Robbins took over rehearsals for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (in other accounts, Mostel simply said, "Hiya, loose lips").

But this is Mostel talking, and it could be what he wished he'd said. The amount of material and insight Brochu packs into the show is impressive, entertaining and salutary. If he isn't as light on his physical and dramatic feet as Mostel was, few are. His "Zero" is a moving tribute and a cautionary tale, generally well told.

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