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A CurtainUp Review

Sly Fox

Never think too little of people. There's always a little less to be thought.
---Foxwell J. Sly. The recipient of this advice, Simon Able, finds plenty of evidence to justify Sly's cynicism leading him to exclaim: "There's no bottom to greed. A son as easily bartered as a wife. . .This bunch! They'd sell Christ's cross for lumber if they could, or a whisker from God's beard." And speaking of God, to Sly the deity is "spelled with an L."
Richard Dreyfus
Richard Dreyfus
(Photo: Carol Rosegg
Unlike the horse drawn carriages, spats and bustles, corruption, greed, deception and sexual lust are as much in fashion now as they were in 1605 when Ben Jonson wrote Volpone or The Fox to express his outrage at the bottomless avarice permeating his world. When it opened at the old Globe it was an instant hit. In 1976, almost four hundred years later one of television and film land's most astute comic writers, Larry Gelbart (The Sid Caesar Hour, M*A*S*H Tootsie), decided to tease Jonson's hilarious 17th century satire into a 20th century Broadway comedy. The greedy scoundrels and skinflints of what became Sly Fox kept audiences laughing for 495 performances.

With corporate "foxes" dominating the news, a revival of Sly Fox is nothing if not timely. What better way to cope with the daily disillusionment about yet another greed-driven misdeed, than to laugh oneself silly at Gelbart's vaudeville -- especially, with Arthur Penn once again at the helm of this no expense spared revival with its lineup of expert farceurs.

Dreyfuss is a fine choice to recreate the role originated by George C. Scott. He is, after all, no stranger to rascally roles (on screen, the ladder-climbing Dudy Kravitz, the hustling siding salesman in Tin Men and, when this gig ends, Max Bialystock in the London staging of The Producers). He plays Sly a bit too laid back but is stronger when he pulls out the comic stops in his second act role as the Judge who presides over his own trial. But then that's true of the play. Though there are enough memorably funny lines throughout to fill a small book, the first act is mainly a set-up for the more wildly farcical doings after Sly and Able's arrest.

Eric Stoltz may at first seem too blandly handsome as Sly's servant, but it is that very blandness that lends a certain subtlety to his increasing skills at deception and works well as a counterpoint to Sly's more obvious craftiness. The supporting cast of sycophants --Rene Auberjonois as Jethro Crouch, Bronson Pinchot as Lawyer Craven and Bob Dishy as Abner Truckle (the same part he played in 1976) -- is so good that this is more an ensemble than a star driven vehicle. In the law enforcing department, Peter Scolari also stands out as a sex-starved police chief as does Professor Irwin Corey, who brings down the house in the miniscule role of the Court Clerk.

Although Gelbart's adaptation moved Jonson's play to end of nineteenthth century San Francisco, he smartly stuck with the seventeenth century comedic tradition of giving all the characters deliciously descriptive names. Not only is the title character aptly named Foxwell C. Sly, but his turnaround character is Judge Bastardson. His aide-de-camp, Simon Able, again and again proves himself to be an "able" dissembler and exaggerator as with his tongue in cheek declaration about his master's being unable to engage in either legal or illegal sexual activities because "at the height of ecstasy, he might find himself coming and going at the same time."

The amusing names go well with the script's abundance of double entendres and wisecracks that seem to fit many a current event: Lawyer Craven (Bronson Pinchon) "the early bird who is also the worm" and who in preparing witnesses for Sly's defense against "illegal entry" (Craven's legalism for the attempted seduction of Mrs. Truckle) insists that "We want the truth in court, and that takes a lot of rehearsing".

The miserly Crouch, who moves "like a snail with a hernia" and is apalled at the thought of spending money on anything sees no contradiction in between his assurance that he needs nothing and his "The only thing I need is more!" To add irony, in order to get more he is willing to disinherit his son and perjure himself with a lie of "any color" Crouch's "I thought I smelled lawyer here" is probably one of the first of an unending cache of lawyer putdowns. Truckle the man whose sincerity Sly sees as written on both his faces proves the validity of that opinion when, impatient that Sly isn't trying hard enough to die as promised, he produces first a bottle of poison and then offers to smother him with the pillows on his four-poster bed.

Of the two females, one is as crafty as the men, the other is innocence personified but a bimbo. Miss Fancy (vivaciously played as a combination Mae West and Belle Watling by Rachel York), proves herself a master of doublespeak when she describes herself as "a pleasure engineer." The less assertive Mrs. Truckle (Elizabeth Berkley -- the cast's major weak link) is so browbeaten by her husband that she can't even go near a window because the jealous Truckle considers this as an act of displaying herself "like a cupcake in a sweet shop."

The production values are, as already mentioned, a case of pulling out all the stops to make this a big, splashy Broadway entertainment. George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck have created five richly detailed sets that swivel neatly from Sly's elegant wood paneled bedroom, to the Truckle's parlor, to Crouch's Dickensenian office, to a jail cell, to the courtroom and back to the bedroom. The courtroom setting is especially amusing since it belies the Judge's exasperated "order order this is not a saloon" by actually being a thinly disguised saloon. The costumes by Albert Wolsky, who also dressed the 1976 cast production, are spot on for the Gold Rush era -- from Sly's nightshirt and elegant green velvet robe to the fetching, waist-cinching gown worn by the ladies.

As is typical of revivals like this, you'll probably hear lots of spoiler comments from those given to comparisons to the original production. Thus, those who come to this Sly Fox either without having seen it before or with an open mind, will probably have the best time of all. It should be required viewing for the CEOs who have all the money they can spend but who demand ever more humungous compensation packages.

Adapted by Larry Gelbart, from Ben Jonson's Volpone
Directed by Arthur Penn
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss as (Foxwell J. Sly/Judge Bastardson) and Eric Stoltz (Simon Able). Also Bob Dishy (Mr. Truckle), Rene Auberjonois (Jethro Crouch), Bronson Pinchot (Lawyer Craven), Rachel York (Miss Fancy), Elizabeth Berkley (Mrs. Truckle), Professor Irwin Corey (Court Clerk), Nick Wyman (Captain Crouch), Peter Scolari (Chief of Police) Robert LaVelle (1st Policeman), Gordon Joseph Weiss (2nd Policeman), Jeff Talbott (3rd Policeman).
Set Design: George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck
Costume Design: Albert Wolsky
Lighting Design: Phil Monat
Sound Design: T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, includes one intermission
Barrymore, 243 W. 47th St, .212/239-6200
From 3/13/04; opening 4/02/04.
Tues @ 7:00PM, Wed through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM--$91.25, $71.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 30th pressperformance
A replacement cast had little time to settle in before a closing date of 8/29 was announced. The show will have player 22 preview and 173 regular performances.

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