Sly Fox by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Arthur Penn. Scenic design by George Jenkins and Jess Poleshuck. Costume design by Albert Wolsky. Lighting design by Phil Monat. Sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella. Wigs by Paul Huntley. Fight staging by B.H. Barry. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Bob Dishy, René Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot, Rachel York, and Elizabeth Berkley, with Professor Irwin Corey, Nick Wyman, Charles Antalosky, Linda Halaska, Jeremy Hollingworth, Robert LaVelle, Jason Ma, Jeff Talbott, Gordon Joseph Weiss, and Peter Scolari.
Forget the date - Sly Fox is one play that is not out to fool you.
The new production of Larry Gelbart's comedy that just opened at the Barrymore is a luscious reminder that plays with all-star casts don't need to sacrifice quality for marquee value. After major disappointments this season with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Twentieth Century, this is a lesson Broadway audiences should be all too eager to relearn.
It's not just that stars such as Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Bronson Pinchot, René Auberjonois, Peter Scolari, and Rachel York are put to excellent use, but that they're allowed to make their characters their own. And despite this production's star power, there's never a sense of one-upmanship or colliding egos - everyone is working in the best interests of the show.
This shouldn't be surprising, as director Arthur Penn knows a little something about the play: he directed the original 1976 Broadway production. He has a very good knowledge of what works and what doesn't, and has painstakingly attempted to make sure this mounting meets the standard set by the original. To that end, he's also retained original set designer George Jenkins, credited here with Jesse Poleshuck, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and one of the original production's stars, Bob Dishy.
Under these circumstances, it's not that hard for this Sly Fox to achieve exactly what it sets out to do. It's aimed primarily at making audiences laugh; a worthy goal, if not a lofty one. And while this production easily delivers without a speck of perspiration showing, it's never groundbreaking and is rarely exciting. Penn and his company play it very safe; they have no desire to mess with a good thing. As a result, Sly Fox is good, but seldom much more.
The play, which is based on Ben Jonson's early 17th-century play Volpone and updated to late 1800s San Francisco, depicts a day in the life of Foxwell J. Sly (Dreyfuss), a con man extraordinaire trying to convince the town he's dying so he can safely walk away with all the gold he's fleeced the townspeople out of. Assisting him is Simon Able (Stoltz), a gambler Sly saved from financial destitution now paying off his debts to Sly through service.
Among the townspeople they're out to scam: Craven (Pinchot), a sleazy lawyer who always takes more than his fair share; Jethro Crouch (Auberjonois), an ancient and crooked miser; Abner Truckle (Dishy), Sly's covetous longtime acquaintance; and Miss Fancy (York), the local madam to whom Sly has made one too many promises. Sly and Able weave a complex web of deception around Sly's bequeathment of his worldly goods that tests the morals of their marks, including Crouch's devotion to his naval officer son (Nick Wyman) and Truckle's for his pious yet gorgeous wife (Elizabeth Berkley).
Dreyfuss and Stoltz are major anchoring forces in the production, easily tapping into Gelbart's keen comic writing. Dreyfuss never completely disappears into Sly, but he has the versatility of body and voice needed to sell Sly's cons, and, more importantly, the star power to make you want him to succeed. Stoltz's performance is more understated and underhanded, but he also draws you in while keeping you guessing about his true motives, and he effortlessly handles the role's comedy. Apart or together, Stoltz and Dreyfuss do some terrific work.
The supporting cast is similarly accomplished. Pinchot derives most of his comedy from his ability to barely contain his childlike glee at getting Sly's money; Auberjonois's performance is an ideal combination of addled brain and angular body; Dishy is a model of protective lasciviousness; and York throws a spicy dash of Mae West into her vampy portrayal. Wyman is all blustery bravado in one of the show's few straight roles, while Scolari is equally at home as the police chief spouting malapropisms or making unwanted advances on Mrs. Truckle. Professor Irwin Corey has only a few lines, but makes the most of every one in the second act's manic trial scene. Only Berkley disappoints; lacking the abundant comic and dramatic resources of the other performers, she brings the requisite beauty to Mrs. Truckle but little else, and is particularly unconvincing when delivering the role's more devoutly religious lines.
Jenkins and Poleshuck's lovely Victorian-era sets are nicely lit by Phil Monat, and Albert Wolsky's costumes are quite attractive. The sound design, by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella could use some tweaking, as none of the performers' voices ever really sound natural as they've been amplified here.
Regardless, this production is a welcome addition to a Broadway season that's been a bit dreary in terms of its plays. If it's never exceptional, Sly Fox is thoroughly professional and almost as enjoyable, and it's likely to be the closest thing to comic gold you'll find on Broadway this season. Luckily, you won't have to worry about Sly or Able scamming you out of it - Dreyfuss, Stoltz, and the rest of the cast are all working in your favor.