First of all, Zero Mostel is really Sam. Sam Mostel. And he was a painter. So yes, everything you know about Mostel is wrong. Except that he’s fat, iconoclastic and superbly funny. Oh, yeah. And on stage again – 33 years after his death.
But now everyone who missed Mostel’s first incarnation gets a second chance. In this one-man show, written and performed by Jim Brochu, Mostel seems to live again, as large as life and twice as natural – or possibly vice versa.
The play’s ostensible raison d’etre is an interview with The New York Times in 1977, the year of Mostel’s death. Although the audience can’t see or hear the reporter, it’s clear that he’s getting in only the occasional word anyway. After an initial gruff rebuff, obviously meant to be ignored, Mostel takes the opportunity to regale the reporter with his life’s adventures, beginning with his childhood in Brooklyn, when he developed a lifelong passion for painting – which, as he tells it, was only interrupted by this acting business thanks to the theatrical ambitions of his wife, Kathryn Harkin, a Radio City Rockette and (much to the horror of Mostel’s Orthodox parents) a Gentile.
Mostel goes on to recount not only his own tumultuous relationships with the government – from his days with his beloved WPA through his taciturn testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee – dwelling with particular emphasis on the blacklist and the lives he saw destroyed by it. And of course, there’s a wealth of Broadway and Hollywood gossip about his histrionic highlights, like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Producers. Along the way, he doesn’t miss a chance to slip in a sly Borscht Belt routine or off-color joke.
Brochu is Zero to the life: He’s got the same ability to maneuver his beached-whale bulk with a comic nimbleness, the same almost-audible eye rolls beneath the same beetling brows, and the same focused, frenetic energy, bounding around the cluttered art studio in which the play is set. He even manages to sound like the hitherto inimitable Mostel. As for his writing? Well, every one-person show – particularly those that seek to resuscitate a deceased celeb – involves a certain suspension of disbelief: Why is this person spontaneously recounting his entire life? But Brochu’s channeling of Mostel’s bravura, and Piper Laurie’s unostentatious, surefooted direction effectively gloss over such fripperies as plausibility and allow the audience to revel in the sheer power of the performance. Brochu’s depiction of Mostel is truly remarkable, and the passion evident in both his writing and his performance are compelling – and funny – enough to be a fitting tribute to the larger-than-life Zero.