He had me at Hirschfeld. By which I mean: The initial, almost startling appearance of Jim Brochu in the role of Zero Mostel in Brochu's self-scripted one-man show so immediately calls to mind a Hirschfeld caricature of the comic actor that there is no need for that window of time during which the audience decides whether or not it's going to buy one distinctive actor portraying another. The better part of the next two hours is spent on Mostel's career, his life, a fair amount of backstage and personal dish, and his run-in with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which blacklisted him. Brochu, under the adept hand of director Paul Kreppel, creates a character that never fails to engage, whether or not you know anything about Mostel.
And I say this as somebody who couldn't be less interested in Mostel, who always struck me as a bit de trop: too loud, too large, just too tightly wound. Brochu's performance in no way minimizes these aspects of the performer, mind you. Within the first minutes we, the audience, who collectively represent a newspaperman visiting Mostel's artwork-littered studio (an attractive structure by Danny McCabe, which, on opening night, was not quite up to the demands of a dramatic exit), are roundly berated for being on time. Or, for that matter, alive.
Brochu's performance is painterly, as befits a character described in the program as "a painter who acted rather than an actor who painted." A dab of bluster, a wash of insecurity, and vibrant fields of talent and charisma applied to a sturdy canvas of humanity create a rich portrait of the man. Despite the one-set premise, Kreppel keeps the play from becoming static, breaking up the convention of the one-sided conversation with the occasional fully performed segment, such as the testimony before HUAC. If there is one place where the piece wavers, it's the decision to have Zero, Broadway's original Tevye, sing "If I Were a Rich Man." It's a wan attempt that may have been meant to seem, I don't know, casual, but it just looks out of character. The Zero that Brochu creates hardly seems the type to do anything by half-measures.
Presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave.,Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Jul. 7-Aug. 13. (323) 595-4849.