Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zero Hour


By Jim Brochu. Directed by Piper Laurie. St. Clement's Theatre. Through Jan. 31.

Jim Brochu's spot-on impersonation of Zero Mostel in Zero Hour wins over most critics, but a few say that the writing suffers from cheesy jokes and a weak conceit--an interview with an offstage reporter. Edit: a few more positive reviews have come in, praising Brochu for revealing multiple sides of Mostel.

The New Yorker A
(Unsigned) The artifice of theatre is especially fragile when it comes to one-person shows, but the writer-actor Jim Brochu and the director Piper Laurie have navigated all the potential hazards in this production.

Theatermania A
(David Finkle) In the entertaining Zero Hour, now at St. Clement's Church, writer-performer Jim Brochu impersonates girthful, mirthful actor Zero Mostel so accurately that his performance is tantamount to a reincarnation. From head to toe, he's got it right; he has Mostel's ludicrous yet somehow distinguished pushed-forward hair-do; he moves with Mostel's light-footedness; he has the facial expressions that include eyebrows traveling far up the forehead; and he has those famed busy-busy hands and booming voice.

Time Out New York A
(Adam Feldman) From the moment that Brochu spins around to face the audience, he is a Hirschfeld drawing come to pulsing life: the paradoxical lightness of his bulk, the bulging eyes beneath rolling brows, the garish comb-forward of hair. There is a good deal of aggression built into Mostel’s humor; he rim-shots many of his Borscht Belt one-liners by snapping into a comic mask of mischievous challenge, somewhere between a grin and a snarl. In Brochu’s account, he has many grapes of wrath to stomp, stemming from two traumatic rejections: by his parents, after his marriage to a non-Jewish woman, and by much of the entertainment world when he was blacklisted for his Marxist sympathies. Brochu limns these episodes nimbly in his script, but under Piper Laurie’s sharp directorial eye, his performance never grows maudlin.

New York Post A
(Frank Scheck) By most accounts, the actor was an outrageous and often surly individual, traits Brochu certainly doesn't ignore in his mostly admiring portrait. In fact, "Zero Hour" does an excellent job of resisting caricatures and conveying Mostel's hidden depths. Especially strong are the sections detailing his blacklisting in the '50s and his friendship with actor Philip Loeb (TV's "The Goldbergs"), who committed suicide when his career was destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

CurtainUp A
(Simon Saltzman) It would be easy to forget perhaps that Brochu's play and his perceptive performance owe much to the precisely paced direction of Piper Laurie. Although Laurie is known to many of us of a certain age as a lovely B-films star in the 1950s, it is her subsequent theater and TV career that brought her accolades and a long overdue appreciation of her talent. She has been a guiding force for Zero Hour from its inception in 2005, through its development stage and its initial runs in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. There is no question that the force was with her as it is with Brochu's portrayal.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) The centerpiece of "Zero Hour" is the McCarthy era and the blacklist, of which Mostel was a target and which led a dear friend, actor Phillip Loeb, to suicide. Brochu delivers this part of the evening with caustic wit and striking passion, making us understand in the most visceral way the price Mostel and many others paid for their convictions. It also provides an effective first-act curtain, something generally hard to come by in one-person shows. Brochu's writing is necessarily bold considering his subject, but there's also a welcome subtlety. After Mostel has related the tale of Loeb's suicide, the reporter questions the means of the actor's death, having found differently in his research. Mostel's response: "You're asking an actor for truth?" Later, we see Mostel inventing his legacy when he discusses "Forum" and says that Harold Prince hired authors Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim only after Mostel deemed the script submitted to him "god-awful." Not true, of course.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Whether sitting at a table or hurling himself around a re-creation of Mostel's beloved watercolor-painting studio, Brochu gives an enthusiastic, unrestrained performance as the outsize, opinionated, triple Tony Award-winning actor. He looks uncannily like Mostel, complete with weirdly forward-combed hair, bulging eyes and a wide range of expressive stares and wild gesticulation. With wonderful comedic timing, Brochu covers highlights of Mostel's life by having his character give an often intense, occasionally true interview to an unseen, unheard newspaper reporter. Brochu repeats the question, then launches into his version of the answer.

(David Cote) What a shame "The Producers" closed back in 2007. I’ve found the perfect actor to play Max Bialystock: Jim Brochu. He’s chubby, funny, and has killer comic timing. Okay, I admit this casting idea is a no-brainer. In "Zero Hour," Brochu does an uncanny impersonation of legendary comedian Zero Mostel, the original Max Bialystock. In this solo bioplay directed by Hollywood veteran Piper Laurie, writer and performer Brochu is freakishly convincing as the blustery, brilliant Mostel.

Variety A-
(Sam Thielman) The screechy, bellowing cadence Brochu uses to blast the audience with this punchline gives us pretty much everything we need to know about the show's version of Mostel in less than a second: willfully obnoxious, obscene whenever it suits him, but oddly anxious to please people even if -- maybe especially if -- it makes him look like a buffoon. Brochu's knack for characterizing Mostel is somewhat more interesting than his avatar's hand-wringing over the blacklist, which comes off as a little sanctimonious, discussing it in the same breath as the Holocaust. Which is not to say that section of the play lacks interesting, eerie moments. When Feds walk into Mostel's apartment and stand there looking around, saying nothing, Brochu evokes the kind of prickle on the back of the neck usually delivered by David Lynch movies.

The New York Times B-
(Jason Zinoman) I don’t know how many hours Mr. Brochu, who also wrote the script, has spent in front of a mirror practicing his eye rolls and bellowing quips, but it has paid off. He’s the spitting image of the bearish Mostel, down to the strands of hair barely covering his head. His wildly expressive gestures are particularly spot on. Of course this is not a performance designed really to get at the private life of the actor so much as it’s a cranky version of the Mostel we know. It brings him back to life, just the way his fans want him.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) Whether Mostel is sawing through the air with his hands, raging against those who’ve done him wrong or the infelicities of fate, or warmly rhapsodizing about his marriage or painting pursuits, Brochu fully embodies his character’s irrepressible and unpredictable spirit in his portrayal. If only there were some in his writing. Brochu has loaded his play with one-liners that seem intended to identify Mostel as the ultimate always-on comedian, but they hardly portray him as a dynamically original comic genius. Examples include “Close the door behind you, you’re letting the flies out”; referring to London: “God, that’s going to be a beautiful city when it’s finished”; “My life is an open zipper”; and, when answering the phone, “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League, this is Yasser speaking.” And that’s just the first half of the first act! Are you laughing yet? Timing, as they say, is everything, and Zero Hour doesn’t have it.

Lighting & Sound America D-
(David Barbour) First of all, there are the lame jokes -- bushels of them-- that come thick and fast. "My life is an open zipper," he reassures his interrogator. Answering the phone, he coos, "Palestinian Anti-Defamation League....Yasir speaking." Dismissing his first wife, he says, "Clara had the sense of humor of a grapefruit." Comparing her to his second wife, he adds, "Katie had the face of a Rockette. Clara had the face of a rock." Brochu hurls these would-be zingers with remarkable force, a strategy that only further exposes the poverty of the gags. Which brings us to the second problem: Mostel was, by all accounts, a bizarre personality -- bitterly contentious one moment, seductively charming the next. His moods came a mile a minute, which, I suppose, was part of his fascination. But Brochu plays him on a single note of accusatory rage, a strategy that becomes increasingly wearying.

The New Yorker A 13; Theatermania A 13; TONY A 13; New York Post A 13; CurtainUp A 13; Backstage A 13; AP A 13; NY1 A 13; Variety A- 12; The New York Times B- 9; Talkin' Broadway D 4; Lighting & Sound America D- 3; TOTAL: 132/12 = 11 (B+)

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