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Most Mostel

by The Staff on May 25, 2011

Zero Hour
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through June 5

When actor Jim Brochu is first revealed in the character of Zero Mostel, his makeup and aspect looked pretty good. He’d captured an essence, I thought, of the performer I know only from film and television appearances.

As Zero Hour, penned and being performed by Brochu at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2, reached the first of many peaks, with Mostel portrayed early in his nightclub-comedian career, Brochu’s skill at capturing Zero’s speech patterns and physicality became even more apparent. But here’s the kicker: Before we were halfway through the 90-minute monologue, I realized that I completely believed that Mostel was onstage before me. This is one of the most compelling impersonations I’ve ever seen—the more compelling because “impersonation” hardly describes what Brochu achieves.

Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain is regarded as a touchstone of this kind of show, but Holbrook created his character so effectively from photographs and writings that we now believe that this is how Twain spoke and behaved. Brochu’s Mostel goes up against the YouTube-able specter of a great actor and larger-than-life personality, and triumphs.

He has a cracking good story to tell along the way. Mostel regarded himself as a painter who acted, and the show is set in a studio lined with face-to-the-wall canvases. The set-up is a New York Times interview, with the actor—named in the script as “The Artist”—addressing an unseen reporter.

It’s a premise teeming with cliché potential, but Brochu trumps that by creating a plausible relationship between the temperamental Mostel and his interrogator. It begins with hostility—“So what’s this interview for anyway, putz?”—and finishes with grudging respect.

Along the way, we get a fairly chronological autobiography, laced with effective jokes that grow bittersweet as we experience the roller-coaster of Zero’s life, at the heart of which is his 1955 appearance, deftly portrayed, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony endures as a shining example of maintaining one’s artistic and ideological integrity in the face of a juggernaut of politically sanctioned paranoia, and, although it would unbalance this show if recounted in its entirety, it merits a reading—more than ever in this freshly paranoid era. (You can find it in the Eric Bentley-edited collection Thirty Years of Treason.)

Choreographer Jerome Robbins, on the other hand, named names, for which Mostel never forgave him. They were thrown together when Robbins was called in to rescue the ailing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum during its tryout tour, and the new relationship Mostel forged, continuing with their collaboration in Fiddler on the Roof, is explained with shrewd insight into the primacy of the creative process that defines a culture—and threatens those who seek to control a populace. “We of the left do not blacklist!” declares Mostel, which should hang as a motto on every liberal’s wall.

Brochu maintained a casual friendship with Mostel for many years, and explained, during a post-show talkback, that he was often compared to the other actor. So it made sense, as he neared the age of 60, to develop this play as a tribute—and a vehicle with which to keep working, which is every actor’s imperative.

Mostel’s son, Josh, and close friend (and fellow blacklist-ee) Jack Gilford were among those who contributed material and approbation, and the result is a virtuoso piece of work.

Some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, and there were a couple of moments when Brochu sent Mostel into a physical paroxysm that had me worried for the actor himself, but for most of the performance I was completely drawn into one of the most moving stories—and performances—I’ve seen. Budgetary constraints have forced casts to dwindle and production values to disappear, but this is intimate theater at its best. Brochu has a piece of sheer wizardry on his hands.