Review: Washington Jewish Week

Modern-day morality play

by Lisa Traiger

Arts Correspondent

The clown prince of Broadway was an angry man. Funny man Zero Mostel, it seems, had a bitter streak that adds heft and intrigue to actor, creator, writer Jim Brochu's one-man bio-drama, Zero Hour, which explores the life of the rubbery-faced actor.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Brochu has the oversize dimensions, literally the weight and heft, to carry off a more-than-believable Mostel impersonation. But Brochu offers more than an off-the-shelf impersonation of the character comedian with his bulgy eyes, grimaces, grins and groaners. At the end of 90 minutes, Brochu has become a reincarnation of the late, great Mostel, a one-of-a-kind stage presence -- famed for his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Onstage at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater through Sept. 27, Zero Hour introduces us to a man who lived life with a vengeance. In the guise of a newspaper interview with an unseen New York Times reporter, Mostel's story unfolds over two acts.

This is Mostel late in life and he terms himself a painter who only took acting and comedy gigs to pay for his paints and canvases. Throughout the evening, Brochu sketches and paints. He notes in passing that he was just back from London where he filmed an appearance with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy for a Muppet Show episode. That places Zero Hour in 1977, the year the larger-than-life actor died.

But Zero Hour goes beyond a dry study of the rise of a successful actor, lauded from Broadway to Hollywood. Brochu captures the intense fear and uncertainty of living through McCarthyism, for Mostel was one of many performing artists -- Jewish and otherwise -- brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee between 1947 and 1956.

Mostel, like many who appeared before HUAC -- in 1955 -- was asked to "name names." He understood the repercussions of such actions and the lives and careers that could be shattered if Communist Party affiliations were publically revealed. In fact, among the most touching moments is one when Mostel describes the devastating outcome being named a communist had on his close friend, actor Phil Loeb.

Mostel also recounts the origins of his well-known animosity toward director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, one of a few who unrepentantly named names. Mostel famously refused to shake hands or speak with Robbins, who said he named names for fear of being outed as a homosexual in the repressive 1950s.

But, when Robbins was brought in to work on Forum, Mostel acquiesced -- Robbins was, he allowed, a genius as a show doctor -- and they worked together there and on Fiddler: "I don't blacklist," Mostel declared.

The kernel of Zero Hour rests in Mostel's account of the McCarthy witch hunt, which he characterizes as an inquisition against Jewish artists. He contended that it was the Jews, outsiders in the then WASP-dominated United States, whom McCarthy and his supporters were after.

For a man of Mostel's generation, son of immigrants, being questioned just a decade after the Holocaust decimated European Jewry, it becomes a believable, even incendiary proposition, especially so in Brochu's hands as a Mostel alter-ego.

The sting still resonates a half century after McCarthy. Most American Jews, indeed, as a community and individuals, feel completely at home in their multicultural 21st century country. But witch hunts of other sorts abound these days, whether from the conservative right or the liberal left -- just open up a newspaper to confront the political and cultural divisions that have bisected America just in the past few months.

Brochu has wrought, aside from an uncanny impersonation of a larger-than-life man with googley eyes, great girth, a graying beard and slicked-down comb-over, a modern-day morality play that compels viewers to re-examine our own era for 21st-century witch hunts.

After he leaves Washington, Brochu brings his play Zero Hour to New York for an off-Broadway run; so don't miss a chance to see a star performance on the rise.
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