- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

It is no wonder Zero Mostel was a substantial man. No mere ectomorph could contain such a mass of contradictions. He possessed girth and surprising grace. His humor contained lethal truths as well as the shtick of a borscht belt comedian. He craved attention but also isolation. He was a man of integrity who stood up for what he believed in but was pragmatic enough to know when it was time to compromise and get to work.

Actor and writer Jim Brochu has the size — physical and emotional — of Zero Mostel in his funny and piercing one-man show, “Zero Hour,” playing at Theater J under the astute direction of actress Piper Laurie.

At one point in the show, Mr. Mostel kvetches that despite a long career in the theater and in comedy, he will be remembered only as “the fat guy in ‘The Producers.’” Many may know him from the Mel Brooks cult film, but “Zero Hour” details a career that embraced everything from swanky Manhattan nightclubs (he got his big break at Cafe Society opening for Billie Holiday) to Hollywood (he became great friends with Lucille Ball when they made “Du Barry Was a Lady”) and New York theater (he starred in the original productions of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Rhinoceros” and a legendary staging of “Ulysses in Night-town” directed by Burgess Meredith).

“Zero Hour” portrays Mr. Mostel being interviewed in his art studio by an unseen New York Times reporter who tries to separate fact from fanciful fiction and also concentrates on the comedian’s laughless years when he was blacklisted in the 1950s following his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Even here there are hilarious moments, including a near-verbatim depiction of his appearance in front of the committee, showing Mr. Mostel as the ultimate canny provocateur.

For all the humor born out of bitterness, there also are equal amounts of bigheartedness and deep empathy, as seen in Mr. Mostel’s pain-etched recounting of his friendship with Paul Loeb (of “The Goldbergs” radio and TV fame), who committed suicide after being blacklisted, and the sufferings of friends Ring Lardner Jr., Jack Gilford and Mr. Meredith. “For artists, it was an intellectual Final Solution,” he said.

Mr. Brochu captures Mr. Mostel’s thundering bravado — the florid language, extravagant gestures, the wagging brows and glowering stare, the way the comedian could never pass up a pun. The low humor is abundant, but so are the high ideals. Mr. Mostel claims to have come from nothing, but “Zero Hour” affirms his worth as both an actor and a man.

★★★½

WHAT: “Zero Hour,” written and performed by Jim Brochu

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. 2 p.m. Sept. 11 and noon Sept. 16. Through Sept. 27.

TICKETS: $30 to $55

PHONE: 800/494-8457

WEB SITE: www.theaterj.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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