BOTTOM LINE: A fun and entertaining celebrity portrait that rises above the limitations of its genre and tackles some very important themes. You do not have to be a fan of Zero Mostel to enjoy this show.
Zero Hour, a one-man show written and performed by Jim Brochu and directed by Hollywood veteran Piper Laurie, is a moving portrait not just of a talented man and his fascinating milieu, but also of a moment in American history that should not be forgotten.
The subject of Zero Hour is ostensibly Zero Mostel, the American comedian and actor who rose to fame in the 1940s and went on to an illustrious stage and screen career, including starring in the original Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The play takes place in Mostel's artist studio (he considered himself a painter above all else), and the conceit that gets the ball rolling is an interview with a New York Times reporter in Mostel's later years. This conceit is a bit awkward at first, and it took me a few minutes to warm up to the show, but only a few minutes. Soon we moved beyond a slightly schitcky portrayal of a man who was a master of schtick, into some really interesting territory, and I forgot about the signature mannerisms and one-liners. This being a biographical show, Brochu makes sure to include the highlights of Mostel's personal life and career, affectingly recounting his childhood need for attention, his marriage outside of his religion (Mostel was Jewish) to his Catholic sweetheart and his subsequent rejection by his parents, and of course his career highs and lows. Brochu covers a great deal of factual ground, but does so in a way that we quickly forget we are learning a life history and focus on the life-force on stage. Brochu is a large man with a great deal of stage presence, and one doesn't even have to think about whether this is a match for Mostel's charisma; it is clear that it is.
As fine a portrait of the man as the show presents, Zero Hour is much more than a trip down memory lane with a great mid-century funny man. At its core, it is a treatise on the power of artists to shape society and the dangers of letting political forces, bent on controlling that power, interfere with an artist's work. Zero gained popularity at the height of the McCarthy era. He himself was blacklisted, was watched by the FBI and was indicted and had to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Mostel lost work for ten years, but more importantly lost dear friends during this extremely low point in American political history. It is while delving into this subject matter that this show truly distinguishes itself, rising above the genre of nostalgic celebrity portraits and becoming something much more interesting and rather profound. In fact, I found this show to be the most affecting account of the McCarthy era that I have encountered. It transformed the concepts of "McCarthyism," "red scare," and "blacklist" into a reality through a very moving, first-hand account (as imagined and written by Brochu). I had an a-ha moment in the theater, one that was no-doubt skillfully orchestrated by the playwright: the blacklisted artists, many of them popular entertainers, weren't simply prohibited from working, they were persecuted and ostracized. Brochu goes so far as to use the word "exterminated," and in that moment, it does not seem too much. And the thoughts follow: we must never let this happen again. Could it happen again? Yes, if we get complacent. Let's make sure it doesn't. Simply for reminding us to remember, Zero Hour is worth the price of admission.
(Zero Hour plays at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15 Street (east of Union Square). Showtimes are Tuesdays at 7pm, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $35.50-$59.50 and can be purchased by visiting telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. The show runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission.)