By Monica McGivern
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Paint me with your words," Zero Mostel tells a young New York Times reporter who's come to interview him at his 28th Street studio in New York City. It's an appropriate request because that's exactly what actor and writer Jim Brochu does for Samuel "Zero" Mostel in his one-man biographical play Zero Hour, solidly directed by Oscar-nominated actress Piper Laurie. The bombastic Mostel, who is regarded as one of the funniest entertainers to ever hit Broadway and Hollywood, is stunningly brought to life by Brochu in a performance that channels all of Zero's larger-than-life mannerisms, quirks, and fiery discourses.
Brochu's transformation is so remarkable, it was jarring when the curtain rose, the man-mountain turned around, and the lights shone down on him. There he was, Zero Mostel in all his overweight, balding glory: the large kinetic rounded eyes; the thinning strands of hair combed over the forehead; the lithe and agile footsteps; the large, waving hands; the booming jovial voice stridently spewing Yiddish expressions.
While the New York Times reporter was never seen or heard (the entire performance was addressed to the audience as if we were the reporter), we still couldn't help but feel sympathy for him. Mostel, in his imperious style, dominated the conversation at every turn. He broke the ice by answering a phone call with "Palestinian Anti-Defamation League!" He told the reporter he wouldn't do the interview unless he allowed Mostel to sketch a nude of him during the questioning. He recounted how, when his mother-in-law moved in with him, they spoke only 18 words to each other, saying "fuck" and "you" nine times each.
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The play is set in 1977, the year Mostel died. Canvases, easels, and paintbrushes are strewn about in his disheveled studio. Mostel was passionate about painting, and the play makes it clear that is his first love. Before the reporter can get to the meat of the interview, Mostel is already bloviating about his childhood. Mostel's life began in tumultuous fashion. His parents disowned him when he married a girl who wasn't Jewish. His love of painting and his sharp wit got him through the tougher times. And it was that love and his humor that shot him toward stardom. As an art lecturer, his reputation as an unabashedly funny man began to spread and, eventually, a Manhattan nightclub came calling and offered him a job as a stand-up comedian. From there, Mostel quickly rose up the ladder of entertainment eventually becoming a Broadway actor.
Bits of Mostel's humor are peppered throughout the play. On Jewish heritage and kosher observations he exclaims: "Pork and shellfish are only to be eaten at a Chinese restaurant!" At another point, he quotes Larry Gelbart: "If Hitler is still alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical!" And, half-jokingly, he calls FDR "one of the greatest Jewish minds of all time!"
It's his sharp, over-the-top humor that also gets him into trouble. When federal agents begin paying him visits after his appearances in movies deemed "sympathetic to Communism," Mostel gets into the habit of quoting Trotsky to them.
It's here that Mostel's life and career take a dark turn. The House Un-American Activities Committee and their witch-hunt for Communist influence in Hollywood took from us an entire era of Mostel's genius in the 1950s. Mostel's monologue turns mercurial and irate when he speaks of the years he was blacklisted. He spits contempt toward director Elia Kazan and his easy willingness to name names to keep his career going. He's unapologetic in his rage over Jerome Robbins and his cooperation with the HUAC.
As Mostel delved into his anguish over that time, the stage dimmed to a dark blue and red, and Brochu's eyes and face contorted into rueful fury. The buoyant humor was hastily replaced with an unquenchable ire towards HUAC, McCarthyism, and all those who condoned their actions. "It was the Final Solution of thought!" Brochu angrily cried out.
Mostel holds his most callous disdain for director and choreographer Jerry Robbins. Robbins, Mostel reveals, freely cooperated with the HUAC to avoid revelation of his homosexuality. He ruined careers while his remained intact. Still, Mostel is forced to confront his scorn toward Robbins when the two have to work together in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof. Mostel wrestles with this by declaring, "We on the left do not blacklist!"
The two end up working together well, and both productions are huge successes for both, most notably Fiddler, which puts Mostel on the map as a comedic genius and a true force on Broadway. Mostel credits Robbins for getting him through the toughest time in his life, learning of his mother's passing just before going on stage as Tevye, a man who disowns one of his daughters because she marries outside the faith.
Mostel and Robbins eventually patch things up enough for Robbins to promise him the part of Tevye in the Hollywood version of Fiddler. But the film is given to Norman Jewison, who casts Chaim Topol as Tevye, or as Mostel sneeringly spews, "Jewison cast Topo Gigio for the part over me!" referring to the popular mouse puppet.