With Donald Trump reigning in the Nielsen ratings, Martha Stewart possibly preparing for imminent incarceration and the Tyco trial quickly becoming a three-ring media circus, the time could hardly be riper for a new play taking satirical aim at Americans’ longstanding love affair with filthy lucre. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have written one. Broadway audiences will have to settle for a second helping of “Sly Fox,” Larry Gelbart’s 1976 adaptation of Ben Jonson’s “Volpone.”
But the new production, starring Richard Dreyfuss as the gleefully avaricious Foxwell J. Sly and directed by Arthur Penn, who was at the helm of the original, isn’t exactly bursting with fresh flavor. There are more than a few hearty yuks spread across the play’s languid 2½ hours, but the persistent sound of wheezing tends to overwhelm the sporadic laughter.
Its themes may have fresh currency in today’s cultural climate, but “Sly Fox” has the stale taste of a TV dinner that’s been left in the freezer too long. No amount of microwaving will help the cause.
In the original production, which ran for more than a year, George C. Scott played Sly, a devious miser in Gold Rush-era Frisco who exploits humanity’s bottomless thirst for money to satisfy his own unending greed. With the help of his wily assistant, Sly bilks a series of speculators by pretending to be at death’s door, receiving tributes of jewels and gold in exchange for a promise to bequeath his fortune to each in turn.
It’s easy to imagine Scott turning the role into a ferocious tour de force: Even on film, he gave performances of theatrical scope and style that leapt off the screen into your lap.
But Dreyfuss is an actor of a subtler stripe. In his best-known movie roles he’s specialized in wry, naturalistic portraits of latter-day neurotics. What’s needed for Sly is something altogether larger and more lunatic — his lust for gold should be operatic in scale, outlandish, even cartoonish. Dreyfuss’ human-scaled Sly isn’t a man possessed down to his fingertips by a mania for money; he’s more along the lines of a very successful CPA.
Dreyfuss delivers Sly’s ecstatic hymn to the glories of his favorite mineral — “Ah, bright, glimmering, warming gold — the centerpiece of the sky!” — in sober, rational voice, as if lip-synching to a Puccini aria. Admonishing his factotum, Simon Able (Eric Stoltz), for his reckless desire to spend what he could be hoarding, Sly could almost be one of the Donald’s humorless assistants upbraiding a nitwit contestant on “The Apprentice.”
The low wattage of Dreyfuss’ skillful but subdued performance leaves a bit of a comic void at center stage, but the clear candidate to fill it, Stoltz, isn’t up to the task. Talented and charming, Stoltz is plainly — make that blatantly — not a comic actor, and he seems constitutionally un-sleazy, to boot.
Simon should exude the same malicious delight in manipulation that Sly does. Rather than an enthusiastic conspirator, Stoltz’s Simon suggests a dutiful student whose heart really isn’t in his hateful behavior. Dressed nattily in Albert Wolsky’s handsome period costumes, the actor seems uncomfortable ladling up Gelbart’s hoary shtick; perhaps he’s inwardly yearning to be in some other play, something by Shaw, maybe, or O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”
For the most part, the actors in the supporting roles are more at ease with the elbow-in-the-ribs style of Gelbart’s comic byplay. Rene Auberjonois deserves particular praise for his inspired caricature of a geezer, Jethro Crouch, whose spirit has shrunk to two glinting, greedy eyes in a wizened body. Bob Dishy, reprising his role in the original, exudes oily desperation as Abner Truckle, who puts his rampant sexual jealousy aside to deliver up his wife when Sly asks for a little private nursing.
Everybody gets to let loose in the play’s comic centerpiece, a raucous jamboree set in the courtroom where Sly is brought up on charges of lechery by Crouch’s naval officer son. Dreyfuss, playing the judge as a sort of Yosemite Sam with a gavel, evinces more comic vigor than he does as Sly.
Peter Scolari has a woolly slapstick bit as the lecherous police chief, while Professor Irwin Corey gets some hearty chuckles as an aged court stenographer loping a mile or so behind the proceedings — a joke repeated, by my count, four times in the span of 15 minutes.
But it’s Bronson Pinchot, as Sly’s corrupt lawyer, who displays the firmest determination not to be outmugged, deploying not just a nonsensical silly voice but a nonsensical spasm of facial tics, too.
“Sly Fox’s” roistering comic style owes far more to the old TV variety shows that gave Gelbart his start in showbiz than it does to Jonson’s corrosive, eternally potent satire on human greed. Jonson’s play lives on because it’s based in a shrewd, if theatrically hyperbolic, analysis of human psychology. Gelbart is concerned less with character than with lines — he’s a master joke writer. But while people don’t change much, tastes in jokes do.
As everyone in “Sly Fox” — right down to that righteous naval officer — keeps churning out one-liners minted from the same mother lode, it’s hard to ignore that, while some still retain their sparkle, many more are looking pretty tarnished.