The Elizabethan morality play on which "Sly Fox" is based, Ben Jonson's "Volpone" set in fabled Venice, begins with that Magnifico before a shrine declaiming a paean to gold, "the world's soul." Set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Larry Gelbart's 1976 version of Stefan Zweig's 1920's update in German , which was translated for the Theatre Guild in 1928, has his title character, Foxwell J. Sly, played by Richard Dreyfuss, enter from the bathroom. A few golden trinkets are displayed during the show, but otherwise, Sly's wealth is all but invisible in a trunk. So much for poetic intent. "Sly Fox"'s current revival, again directed by Arthur Penn, who helmed the Broadway success starring George C. Scott a quarter of a century ago, is very competently staged, handsomely appointed, predictably comic, but rather repetitive. The first act, which ends with a premonition of the Great San Francisco Earthquake--a throwaway joke never really explored--follows Jonson's parallel scenes of greedy would-be-heirs. The second is more inventive. But there's no real climax, just the kind of coda one might expect from prime-time TV.
At the core of the comedy, Volpone--the Fox--and Mosca--the Fly-- have been replaced by Dreyfuss' Foxwell, a mildly engaging swindler, and handsome Eric Stolz's Simon Able, a young gambler in debt to Foxwell. Both these proficient actors give energetic and entertaining performances. But their roles are all plot and no character. This likable pair is simply doing the author/translators'--all four--bidding. Their implied father/son relationship is vague with no interdependence and little sense of danger or cruelty, just simple self-interest uncompounded.
Their victims, Voltore--the Vulture, Corbaccio--the old Wolf, and Corvino--the Crow--become Lawyer Craven, played by Bronson Pinchot; a miser Jethro Crouch, personified by Rene Auberjonois; and Abner Truckle, an accountant, reprised by Bob Dishy who received a Tony nomination for his role in 1976. Pinchot reprises his usual comic persona, which works a lot better here than on his last visit to our Shubert in "Stones in His Pockets." Dishy is instantly recognizable, but doesn't add any substance to his unctuous role. Only Auberjonois has a strong enough physical characterization to lift the comedy to the level of its origins in the Commedia. Mention should also be made of venerable Prof. Irwin Corey appearing as the Court Clerk. Untimely quotes from previous testimony by that minor character seated in a corner almost steal the scene from the Judge--also played by Dreyfuss. Perhaps if the latter could find a similar distinctive energy for his leading role, the whole show could reach a higher level. Otherwise, this enterprise might be more successful if Auberjonois, who is understudying the lead, took over Foxwell. Of course, if the engagement runs long enough on Broadway, he may be able to, since Dreyfuss is slated play the lead in "The Producers" in London next fall.
The whole evening has a retro feel, beginning with the substantial sets by George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck which have a Technicolor look, very neat and decorated. Period costumes by Albert Wolsky, who designed for the 1976 production as well, give the same impression. The two important female roles match the decor. Elizabeth Berkley, known more for her film roles is decorative as Truckle's wife, whose first name should be Celia. The Roman piety written into the role doesn't square with her blond looks or her husband Dishy's Borscht Belt style. A Latina might have been more believable given the California setting, though given Berkley's innocently salacious lines a born-again Protestant dogooder would have been funnier,. Rachel York, as Miss Fancy, a successful and stylish practitioner of the world's oldest profession, has no innocence left and much wittier dialogue. Gelbart seems to have borrowed her from Jonson's other trickster comedy, "The Alchemist." The part has little or nothing of Lady Would-Be, wife of Sir Politick from "Volpone," whose subplot has been omitted entirely along with his character.
The farcical machinations of the show owe more to Feydeau than Jonson. In fact, Zweig's adaptation is performed in a translation by Jules Romain at the Comedie Francais to this day. Nick Wyman's Captain Crouch, Jethro's naval hero son who the old skinflint is ready to disinherit if it will make him Foxwell's sole heir, flies into a fine comic rage, but doesn't get many laughs due to his imposing physical presence in a part written just a shade too seriously. Diminutive Peter Scolari, on the other hand, as the sex-crazed chief of police, savoring every detail of Foxwell's supposed rape of Mrs. Truckle, gets too broadly carried away, given the general tone of the show. Perhaps the two should switch roles. But what's really missing, and may be added by the time this production makes it to the Barrymore, is some lively music to reinforce the period flavor and cue the zanier moments. Perhaps even some tunes from "Foxy" (1964), Bert Lahr's last musical comedy, made from this classic would do. Lahr got a Tony, the tunes were by Dolan & Mercer, and Ring Lardner Jr. worked on the book with Ian McCellan Hunter. However, a stronger ending that got the whole cast back onstage would be more helpful to "Sly Fox." There's not enough chemistry between the two leads to make the current version more than mildly entertaining. Maybe somebody should rework the musical instead. Or just produce the original.
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