Sheridan Square to Shylock

By Jerry Tallmer

Solo show recalls Zero Mostel as ‘funny, tragic, furiously angry man’

A funny thing happened at the Alvin Theatre, one night in 1962. A delicate elephant of a man named Zero Mostel — playing a freedom-minded Roman slave named Pseudolus — turned himself momentarily into an erotic Greek frieze, and a critic named Tallmer fell out of his aisle seat, laughing hysterically. BUMP! on the floor, I kid you not.

Though Zero left us, with tragic abruptness,15 years after that — 32 years ago now — one has high hopes of seeing and hearing him again; not just Pseudolus but the entirety of the man, when Jim Brochu’s raved-about one-man “Zero Hour” arrives here from Washington on November 22. Previews start November 14 for a run through January 31 — at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street.

Zero Mostel was a funny man indeed, and a tragic man, and a furiously angry man. The person he most despised was Jerome Robbins — namer of names, including that of suicided blacklisted actor Philip Loeb — and yet it was brilliant choreographer/director Robbins with whom Mostel grimly worked when (“Funny Thing,” “Fiddler”) he had to.

The therapeutic, cleansing grist of this show is its gloves-off revisit to that era of the hyena. Nowhere in it does Samuel Joel Mostel forget his loyalty to Ivan Black, the Harvard-educated blacklisted press agent who dubbed him Zero.

Brochu reenacts the whole Mostel story; from its beginnings at Café Society (2 Sheridan Square) — where I myself first laid eyes on Zero — to his death on the road as Shylock. His one and only love was wife Kate. “What a pair,” Zero exclaims. “A dysfunctional Catholic Rockette from Philadelphia and a dysfunctional Jewish painter from New York.” Indeed, Mostel always considered himself a painter first, everything else second. And his canvas was…broad.

“Zero Hour” plays November 22 through January 31 (previews begin November 14); at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues). For tickets, call 212-239-6200.