Zero Hour

by Rebecca Thomas

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 8, 2009

Zero Hour

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting when I went to go see Zero Hour by Jim Brochu which is playing August 29-September 27 at Theater J. I didn't know a great deal about the show-only that it was neither a title nor a subject matter that I would usually pick out of a line-up. You'll thus understand my utter astonishment and delight at discovering Zero Hour to be such a prolific and ground-breaking performance.

There is something refreshing about the simplistic format of the show. The entire performance is a one-man show in which Jim Brochu-the genius who wrote the play-plays the part of Zero Mostel, the self-professed "painter who had an acting habit.' All of Zero Hour plays out in one place-Mostel's art studio-and is set towards the end of his life.

The show is primarily a conversation between Mostel and an interviewer from the New York Times-played by the audience-with a few flashback scenes thrown in for good measure in which Mostel is bathed in blue light and recounts various pinnacle events in his life. The result for the audience is a viewing experience that turns out to be an unusual combination of both a fly-on-the-wall perspective and yet also being directly engaged.

Never before have I seen a play which forced me to experience such as full range of emotions. I went from being hysterical with laughter at Mostel's quips and childhood stories to being engulfed with fury at his recounting of the targeting of primarily Jewish performers by the House Committee for Un-American Activities (HUAC) to being consumed with despair at his telling of the sad fate of his friend Philip Loeb who committed suicide after losing everything from being Blacklisted-all in the course of two hours. At the end of the performance I was left feeling as though I needed to catch my breath, but in a good way.

It is uncommon to find a play that can make you both laugh out loud and struggle to hold back tears with equal intensity. In this-and every respect-Zero Hour delivers.

Though the play is riddled with complex and penetrating themes, the most prevalent-or at least the most important as you may have already gathered-is a recounting of the events of the McCarthy Era in which so many were blacklisted and driven to ruin, or worse. Mostel describes the targeting of the Jewish population in the artistic community at length, pointing out the difference between the treatment of actors like Phil Loeb from those like Lucille Ball. As Mostel put it, "It was the most insidious and subtle extermination."

And despite the dire and heart-wrenching nature of the circumstances, Mostel is still able to inject humor into his narrative by capturing their level of absurdity: "Why were they targeting actors? What did they think we were doing? Giving acting secrets to the enemy?!"

Throughout the play it never failed to amaze me just how much of the acting was done with Brochu's face alone. His endless variety of facial expressions paired with his deeply penetrating gaze completely captivated the audience. Not to diminish Brochu's excellent use of the stage and constant gesticulating, but I'm convinced that had the entire set been black, with only Brochu's head visible to the audience, I doubt I would have been any less enthralled. It is the measure of a truly gifted performer to be able to so thoroughly master his own facial expressions as Brochu has clearly learned to do.

For me, one of the most captivating scenes in the play actually had nothing to do with the rest of the story. Pretending to be demonstrating the art of improve to an acting teacher, Brochu transforms into a completely different character-whom Mostel has invented-and demonstrates a full range of emotion from desperation, to giddy (verging on psychotic) delight to desperate hysteria all within a matter of minutes. In this brief scene, Brochu cleverly demonstrate both Mostel's and his own range and the result left the audience begging for more.

It is uncommon to find a play that can make you both laugh out loud and struggle to hold back tears with equal intensity. In this-and every respect-Zero Hour delivers. Five out of five stars for a rare gem of a play in which a brilliant actor is paired with the role he was born to play!

Rebecca Thomas is a freelance writer and photographer in the Orlando area who has worked as an independent contractor for several media outlets over the years, including but not limited to: U.S. News & World Report, The World Picture Network (WpN) and Aurora Photos. She has a BA from Cornell University in Anthropology and History. She enjoys fluffy dogs, Starbucks seasonal coffee blends, and promoting the advancement of LGBT and other causes through her writing and reviews.