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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 16, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Sly Fox’

It should come as no surprise to anyone that greed, deception, and the acquisition and distribution of ill-gotten gains — be they corporate or personal — remains as rampant in 2004 as it was in 1605 when Ben Jonson wrote his masterpiece “Volpone.” Indeed, these pursuits remain so relevant and topical that even the rare revival of the original provides a rich feast for sociologists and psychologists. Indeed, “Volpone” is like a mirror being held up to the purveyors of avarice of every century and to their equally culpable and gullible prey.

In 1976 television and film comedy writer Larry Gelbart wrote “Sly Fox,” an extraordinarily funny adaptation of “Volpone.” It succeeded (with George C. Scott in the title role) in no small measure because of Arthur Penn’s crafty direction. That “Sly Fox” is back, a little different, a little mellower perhaps, but just as slippery as ever.

Having Penn return to re-direct this new and sumptuous production, set in wild and wacky ’Frisco during the Gold Rush era, is in itself a treat. The handsome settings by George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck that gracefully rotate from Sly’s spacious bedroom to an intimate parlor to office to jail cell to courtroom and back to the bedroom are an added gift for theatergoers used to one-set shows. And Albert Wolsky’s costumes offer a splendid glimpse of Wild West finery. But the real visual treat is to see how resourcefully Richard Dreyfus plays the unconscionable scoundrel. Dreyfus, whose impressive film career has taken precedence over his stage roles, which include “Death and the Maiden” on Broadway, is a constant source of devious delight.

For those who remember the original production, there is the consideration of whether or not the current production measures up. Let it go. For the rest of us, this joke-propelled, actor-driven farce for the ages supplies a full and bountiful evening of pleasures, both amiable and hysterical. Dreyfus starts out by cleverly keeping a tight rein on the miserly Foxwell J. Sly, the wily con artist who proceeds to bamboozle his business associates and faux friends into paying him homage with gifts and flattery. This, as he convinces them that he is near death. The beauty of Dreyfus’ performance, especially in the first act, is notable in how he creates the wily reality of his character in subtle ways rather than in creating an over-the-top caricature.

This comes later, in Act II, when Dreyfus lets his unbridled behavior loose as the lunatic judge who presides over Sly’s trial — and what passes incontestably for law and disorder in the old west. What is more remarkable is that there is not a trace of pandering for laughs in Dreyfus’ carefully honed performance in either circumstance. But laugh you will, not because you are told to, but because you can’t help it.

Don’t think for a minute that this is a star-driven vehicle. There is an excellent company of farceurs on hand. But before we get to them, there is the good-looking yet unthreatening presence of Eric Stoltz, who plays Simon Able, Sly’s collaborating servant. His performance, in concert with Dreyfus, unexpectedly works like magic. The aptly named Able’s matter-of-fact complicity is clearly in tune with Dreyfus’ purposefully dry slyness — a perfect partnership. In Act II, Able also rises to the level of rampant outrageousness that dominates the action in the court house. This is especially so in his hilarious defense of his employer’s questionable comings and goings.

Following in the tradition of Moliere and Sheridan, Gelbart names the characters with similar parodic intent. Rene Auberjonois is a pretzel shaped howl as the appraiser Jethro Crouch. Bob Dishy, as Sly’s easily duped business partner Abner Truckle (recreating the same role he played in 1976), is a figure of the highest anxiety, considering that he has just offered his beautiful ultra religious wife (played a bit too colorlessly by Elizabeth Berkley) to serve as Sly’s nurse. The only other female role of importance is Miss Fancy, the self-described “pleasure engineer,” played with a lusty sensuality a la Mae West by Rachel York.

Bronson Pinchot, as the twitchy, giddy-with-expectation Lawyer Craven; the inimitable “Professor” Irwin Corey, as the incompetent court stenographer (who gets big laughs with a minimum of lines); and Peter Scolari, who plays an oversexed police chief who leers and lunges lasciviously with burlesque-infused style, take their respective opportunities to draw us into a world of madcap mayhem ably directed by the remarkable Penn.

— Simon Saltzman

Sly Fox, Ethel Barrymore, 243 West 47. For tickets, at $91.25 to $71.25, call 212-239-6200.


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