THE RULES ACCORDING TO HOYLE

Arizona Theatre Company has joined Actors Theatre of Phoenix by ending the season not with a bang, but saving a buck. Both theatres concluded the year with one-man shows. Last month, ATP gave us An Evening With Groucho, and now we have an opportunity for theatrical d‚j… vu.

Actually, ATC's The Convict's Return, written and performed by Geoff Hoyle at Herberger Theater Center, is more performance art than play. In a play, we might envision other actors essaying the material. But Convict is autobiographical and requires unique physical gifts to perform, so no one but Hoyle could do this particular turn. The performer possesses a body as rubbery as Jim Carrey's face. While his skills are amazing, they are as peculiar as a contortionist's, and about as unsettling.

The first half-hour is a freewheeling improvisation. Fifteen minutes into the show, about 30 latecomers (whom I suspect are victims of Herberger's "seated at the discretion of the management" policy) flood into the theatre, offering Hoyle a chance to "improvise" at their expense. He looks at his watch, then mimes the arrivals edging their way to the middle of a row, plopping into their seats and unwrapping candy. "It must be hard to find parking in downtown Phoenix!" he sneers. Once past the questionable "improvisation," the text is a curious blend, both a meditation on the failure of Hoyle's previous piece in New York and a recounting of his openhearted obsession with a great but historically obscure comic named Bobby Clark.

Hoyle's one-man show Feast of Fools was presented for 26 performances upstairs at the Westside Arts Theater in March of 1990. Described as a sampling of clown styles and characterizations, Fools had the misfortune to open on a Thursday. Hoyle attributes the lack of audience to the delayed printing of the New York Times review, which appeared belatedly in the Sunday news section of that voluminous newspaper, opposite gardening tips and a column on stamp collecting. Hoyle describes encounters endemic to work off-Broadway. His scathing portrait of Sylvia Molinari, a Hollywood television executive who wants to recruit him for a new series called Clown Cops, is a caricature fed by the embittered sensibilities of an artist at sea in a world of sharks. Hoyle realizes that Molinari's offer would result in a complete compromise of his artistic sensibilities, but as he contemplates the money he would make, he rationalizes: "Maybe I could remain true, within the form." This satire of Hollywood is a vicious exaggeration on the surface, revealing an equally vicious kernel of authenticity, presented with more gleeful vitriol than, say, Robert Altman's film The Player.

Less successfully, we are introduced to comedy enthusiasts who have come backstage to congratulate Hoyle on his artistry. Howie and Esther are skewered with the same contempt that Hoyle has expended on Sylvia, only here he displays unexplained malice toward people who genuinely have admired him. It is odd that Hoyle cannot invent appropriately savage humor for the producer, stage manager and box-office personnel for Fools, who are given only cursory characterizations, most likely because Hoyle still smarts from failure.

Hoyle uses the backstage visit of one of his admirers to introduce us to other clowns who are his comic ancestors. Parading the names as if to invite celebrity by association, Hoyle recounts the glory days of vaudeville, when the physical comedy of Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, the Ritz Brothers and, especially, Bobby Clark ruled the ridiculous.

Clark is the primary object of Hoyle's admiration, and here the program notes by James Leverett are very helpful. Clark is remembered, if at all, for painting glasses on his face with a black grease marker. Apparently, Clark's showstopper was a vignette called "The Convict's Return," which was the 14th number of a 1939 vaudeville revue titled The Streets of Paris. Hoyle is told that he could probably find details of Clark's career at the New York Public Library. Using his extraordinary mime skills, Hoyle introduces us to the rigors of a New York City taxi trip as he speeds to the library. The cab ride is horrifying and hilarious.

All these adventures of an actor in New York on the trail of his idol are interspersed with dream sequences, in which the real fun of the evening takes place. In the first dream, a vaudeville act is presented that features a comic with a boa constrictor wrapped around his arm. Hoyle has great fun with the audience and the voracious snake.

A second dream involves a conductor assuming the podium of an orchestra to conduct the William Tell Overture. Hoyle's comic virtuosity demonstrates the variety of things one can do with a baton. This vigorous sketch ends with Hoyle donning a Lone Ranger mask and wondering: "Why am I always so tired when I wake up?" The third dream is the piäce de r‚sistance of the evening, in which Hoyle imagines himself as Bobby Clark, replete with drawn-on glasses, and doing a bit that involves his hand sticking to a chair. An offstage buzz saw severs the offending chair, then his hand, and, ultimately, an offstage carpenter tries to repair things by nailing the hand back on. After several inappropriate solutions, Hoyle discovers the carpenter has provided him with three legs. With the three-legged-man sketch, the evening reaches an apotheosis of hilarity. The last ten minutes of the show are pure comic genius, even if it often seemed heavy going to get to them.

 
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