Northlight Theatre

Failure probably inspires more art than success ever has. Look at Geoff Hoyle’s The Convict’s Return, a bittersweet one-man show. This British-born master comic–Hoyle was “Mr. Sniff,” the mischievous ringmaster clown in Cirque du Soleil’s 1991 tour–has concocted a virulent postmortem on an unsuccessful off-Broadway production he did in 1990: Feast of Fools garnered good reviews but small audiences. The Convict’s Return also reflects on Hoyle’s unsuccessful attempt to launch a CBS series that would have remade silent movies.

But to balance his own sometimes churlish indictments, Hoyle also returns to the glorious, crowd-pleasing traditions of classic burlesque. In this 90-minute tour de force, now on hilarious display in a Northlight Theatre presentation, Hoyle wears expressively baggy pants and achieves comic combustion with his rubber face, economically flamboyant gestures, and gruff flippancy, lampooning some Dickensian targets along the way: claustrophobic, bedless Manhattan apartments, manic cabbies, sloppy stagehands, sad-faced fans, and a cretinous TV producer who pitches with unctuous insincerity a show called “Clown Cops,” in which cops dressed as famous silent-screen comics collar drug pushers. A sneering wardrobe dresser and surly tech director give Hoyle opening-night jitters; he also gets assorted backhanded compliments (“The show is wonderful–how come the audience is so small?”). When the all-important Times review does appear, it’s buried in the Sunday edition between the stamp-collecting and gardening columns. As Hoyle bitterly concludes, “One door closes–another door closes.”

Perhaps spoofing well is the best revenge, but The Convict’s Return goes beyond skewering Big Apple pretensions. An elderly fan’s allusion to “The Convict’s Return,” a nearly forgotten 54-year-old vaudeville act by the once-famous clownsmith Bobby Clark, inspires Hoyle to set out on a search for this “burlesque” version of the “Dead Sea scrolls.” Since this sketch “works because it’s a failure”–if done well, it goes faster than the actor can manage

Clark’s sketch also stirs up Hoyle’s subconscious, inspiring dreams that cleanse him of painful memories from Feast of Fools. In the first, a sidesplitter, Hoyle plays a comic sporting a python puppet, Dora, on his arm; Dora almost swallows an audience member’s forearm until she’s persuaded to throw it up. In the second dream Hoyle is a hammy orchestra conductor, a cross between Victor Borge and Red Skelton who literally carries himself away during the William Tell Overture, returning in a swirl of sheet music to go up in smoke during the crescendo.

The third dream is introduced by Bobby Clark himself (in Hoyle’s expert impersonation, he comes complete with painted-on glasses and squished hat). This marvel of killer slapstick blends two familiar routines: in the first Clark can’t get rid of a chair; then after some frantic adjustments involving a buzz saw he discovers he’s got a third leg and proceeds to perform a madcap waltz.

Unfortunately, however, “The Convict’s Return” never does return. The big–and disappointing–alteration in this import is that the title sketch, the comic classic that Hoyle spends so much time dreaming about and seeking out (and for which he won praise in his west-coast performances), has been eliminated. It’s not enough for Hoyle to twice quote the bromide “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”–it’s a bit late and a tad disingenuous to repudiate the burlesque gem that has inspired and consoled him. Nor have we seen Hoyle grappling with any creative block or inferiority complex about past comics. And since Hoyle does perform at least one old sketch, why doesn’t he revive the vintage 1939 endurance feat in which Clark played convict, warden, father, and butler, frantically donning and doffing hats to distinguish them? Was there no money for the female cameo the scene requires? According to Northlight artistic director Russell Vandenbroucke, Clark’s sketch was a disappointment; a week ago, at the last minute, Hoyle decided to dump it.

As it stands, The Convict’s Return is now largely devoted to the search for a sketch that’s never performed–a buildup that can only let down (it’s a bit like Ahab refusing to kill Moby Dick the moment he’s sighted). Perhaps the title should be changed to The Chair or The Man With Three Legs–at least we get to see these skits. Though the omission is far from fatal, The Convict’s Return does feel anticlimactic–and it’s saddled with a misleading title and a red-herring plot. Happily, we still have Hoyle’s deft delivery and neo-vaudevillian ingenuity (including a few rather mean slams at any fools who got in his way).

At the show’s start Hoyle thanked the crowd for ignoring the boob tube and showing up to give “a silent vote of confidence in theater.” Too bad he doesn’t quite return the compliment. Once more Clark’s signature sketch has been dumped into oblivion.