The wisest fool here is Foxwell J. Sly (Richard Dreyfuss), who's bilking his avaricious neighbors of their worldly goods -- including one wife -- with the promise of making each of them sole heir to his accumulating fortune. Greedy Abner Truckle (Bob Dishy) is ready to forfeit his pious spouse (Elizabeth Berkley), whereas Jethro Crouch (René Auberjonois) is easily talked into disinheriting his son for at least a while in order to secure Sly's untrustworthy promise. Aided by his venal manservant Able (Eric Stoltz, slick and zippy), Sly also bamboozles lawyer Craven (Bronson Pinchot) into doing his manipulative bidding in return for chestfuls of gold.
The beauty part of Sly Fox is the opportunities it offers stage clowns to parade their wares -- and what an assemblage there is. (Stuart Howard and Amy Schecter are credited with the casting.) Front and center, although he spends much of his onstage time in a canopied bed (courtesy of set designers George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck), is Richard Dreyfuss, who's been masterful at suggesting cocky self-confidence ever since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Feigning sick-bed crochets, the actor makes being mean a wonderfully sustained sight gag. When he leaps from his supposed death throes, he has a marvelously vital carriage. Silly in his nightcap and regal in his forest green dressing-gown (Albert Wolsky's costumes), Dreyfuss authoritatively takes charge of the stage in a way that not only grounds this production but bodes well for his next assignment, the sly fox-like Max Bialystock in the London production of The Producers. And if Dreyfuss's protagonist is a polished comic turn, he earns added praise for his second-act appearance as a crude, autocratic San Francisco hanging judge who really means it when he says that he's going to throw the book at someone.
René Auberjonois, who has found a great walk for himself as the crouching Crouch, transmutes old age into creeping skullduggery; unappealingly precious in some of his earlier stage appearances, this actor has become an invaluable asset to any farce. Bronson Pinchot as lawyer Craven is yet another actor who's never the same but is always terrific. Here, he stops every once in a while to go into odd spasms that have nothing to do with anything but being creatively funny. Bob Dishy played Abner Truckle in the 1976 original production and the decision makers apparently figured that no one could play this practiced groveler any better than he; so they've invited him back and will get no argument about doing so from this quarter. Add to this trio of second bananas an indelible appearance by the 92-year-old Professor Irwin Corey, whose stand-up stock in trade is mock intellectual prolixity. Here, he provokes thunderous laughter by doing quite the opposite -- speaking only a few thigh-slapping lines and proving that, indeed, there are no small parts.
When Ben Jonson wrote Volpone 399 years ago, he was harping -- and very nicely -- on a then-popular theme: Old men who haven't learned much in their lives are the bigger buffoons for it. (It's an affliction common to most of the mature males in Shakespeare's plays, as well.) Larry Gelbart may have the same criticisms in mind, although he may simply have been drawn to the Jonson work because it afforded him a chance for inspired tomfoolery. There isn't much plot for him to deal with -- just Sly's unflagging machinations at home, the courtroom scene wherein the devious man is tried for the rape of Mrs. Truckle, and Able's outside intrigues on behalf of his master.
Returning to the play after 28 years, Gelbart hasn't been content to sit around rehearsals shmoozing while the cast delivered his lines. He's done a fair amount of tweaking, such that in many places throughout the script where there used to be one joke, there are now two -- or the same one enhanced. For his first-act closer, he realized that he could make something more of the fact that the play is set in San Francisco during the gaudy Barbary Coast days. It won't harm anyone's enjoyment of the show if it's mentioned that he gets a big laugh with the line "I'll not have my wife on anyone's tongue," though who says it and why won't be divulged here.
Sly Fox is worth its weight in laughs and is all the more valuable for its pithy roles, but it isn't actor-proof. More to the point, it isn't director-proof; it's farce, it's burlesque. Farce calls for immaculate pacing, which this production doesn't yet have consistently. There are many moments, most of them in the first act, when the actors don't pick up their cues as quickly as they should. Just because "fox" is in the play's title doesn't mean that these scenes can be played at fox-trot tempo; rather, a galop is called for.
Arthur Penn, who directed the 1976 production, presumably knows what's needed. He certainly supplied it before. (Designers Jenkins and Wolsky are also repeating their assignments, although Jenkins isn't doing the lighting now; Phil Monat is. And whereas there was no credit for sound design in 1976, times have changed and T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella are listed for their contributions.) It's likely only a matter of time before everything in Sly Fox is as sly and foxy as the play's devilish central figure.