STONEHAM - "Antoine Feval" is a curious excuse for a play. The one-man comedy, now at Stoneham Theatre, is more of a showcase for an actor than a compelling story, let alone the mystery spoof it intends to be. That's not necessarily bad, and Tom Souhrada certainly pulls out all the stops for his performance, but there's not much here for him to work with.
"Antoine Feval" opens with Barnaby Gibbs (Souhrada) recounting his experience with a con artist and thief named Antoine Feval. Barnaby admits he's "a man with ample limitations," but he's a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he identifies particularly with the utterly ordinary Dr. Watson. When he goes to check on a friend's house one night, he discovers a man known as the "Rhyming Bandit" in the midst of a robbery. The dim-witted Barnaby mistakes the burglar for a detective a la Sherlock Holmes and decides to become his assistant, even providing the necessary funds to set up an office. But when a relative of Barnaby's comes to them for help on a real case, the duo must do some actual detective work and solve a crime.
Written by British-born comedian Chris Gibbs, "Antoine Feval" shifts tone and focus the way a stand-up comedian might during a performance. Suddenly breaking out of character to follow some tangent or comment on the action, or unexpectedly drawing the audience in to participate, the performer haphazardly veers from one moment to the next until he finally finds his way to the end. This might have been effective when the playwright was onstage himself, but something must have been lost in passing the show on to another actor.
Souhrada has a charming attitude and gives each of the many characters he plays distinctive characteristics. His pratfalls are also wonderfully believable, but when the best moment in the show is Barnaby wrestling himself, you have to wonder. Souhrada and director Weylin Symes seem uneasy with this material. They don't have the comic timing down, and they tend to stretch every joke much further than it can go. This brings any momentum the story might have to a crawl and reveals how thin the play's premise is.
Although Souhrada does a nice job interacting with the audience, he is working too hard to get from one scene to the next. Early on, he gets into a dead end with a bit about playing chess that lands so flat it feels like he has to start over to get the story going again. Even his entrance at the top of the play sets the stage for problems later on. When the lights go down, Souhrada makes a great show of stumbling around in the dark, playing out the comic bit for so long an audience member at the performance I attended shouted out, "Turn on some lights."
Richard Chambers's set design, a series of scaffolding-like pieces where various props are positioned, is out of scale for the show and becomes distracting when it should help create a more intimate mood.
Ultimately, "Antoine Feval" feels like a clever comedy sketch that's been padded to fill out an evening. Despite an extraordinary effort by Souhrada, it's simply impossible to hold all of its disparate pieces together.