Sly Fox

Greed is not only good, it's downright hysterical in the Broadway-bound revival of Larry Gelbart's farce "Sly Fox." Gelbart's literately low script, based loosely on Ben Jonson's "Volpone," is a love letter to avarice, a valentine to duplicity. And it provides Richard Dreyfuss with a dazzling comic role.

Greed is not only good, it’s downright hysterical in the Broadway-bound revival of Larry Gelbart’s farce “Sly Fox.” Gelbart’s literately low script, based loosely on Ben Jonson’s “Volpone,” is a love letter to avarice, a valentine to duplicity. And it provides Richard Dreyfuss with a dazzling comic role.

The actor is not alone in showing what old pros can do with golden material. But the production is still finding its way. As of now, it’s an uneven exercise, with many delights but also a few duds. Arthur Penn, who smartly staged the original production more than 25 years ago, is again at the helm. He should be able to iron out some remaining problems of casting, character and pacing.

“There’s nothing like dying,” says Dreyfuss’ Foxwell J. Sly, a scoundrel businessman in late 19th century San Francisco (George C. Scott originated the role). Sly is pretending to be on a first-name basis with the Grim Reaper in order to con fortunes from fools who think they will inherit it all when the old boy croaks.

Dreyfuss, in full devilish gusto, exults in playing the mastermind. He’s a Duddy Kravitz for the Gold Rush era, a man who delights in outratting the rats, and gets his joie de vivre from swindling. It’s hard to resist the appeal of Dreyfuss waxing eloquently about his love of gold as if he were lusting after a beautiful woman. He does that, too, to hilarious effect, at the end of the first act. (Oddly, the beneath-the-nightshirt encounter is more pseudo than sexual in this production than it is in the original script.)

Sly is assisted in his scheming by his indebted servant Able (Eric Stoltz), the major-domo who orchestrates the cons at Sly’s behest and learns at the master’s knee. “Play people, not poker,” Sly advises. Stoltz helps keeps the action moving but hasn’t yet imbued the character with any spark. The savory final moments of the play don’t quite catch fire.

Better at matching Dreyfuss greed for greed, take for take, is the trio of vultures that come calling at Sly’s sickbed in hopes of making it into his will. Bob Dishy, accountant Abner Truckle in the original production, reprises the role here and is just as terrific. Rene Auberjonois has delicious fun as a doddering, decrepit old man. Bronson Pinchot, as Lawyer Craven, is often amusing, even if he hasn’t yet found a special sleaze of his own.

Nick Wyman does nicely as Crouch’s outraged naval officer son. Peter Scolari has a few shameless moments as the frustrated chief of police. In a delightful bit of casting, “Professor” Irwin Corey shines in the running gag of the world’s slowest court clerk, when Sly finally has his judgment day. (In a fun bit of double casting, Dreyfuss also gets to play the Wild West justice, with cowboy fervor.)

Less successful are Rachel York as a prostitute who wants to marry Sly and Elizabeth Berkley as Truckle’s virginal wife. Berkley mostly fails to mine the comic gold lining the script. (An absurdly funny reference to “chastity shoes” misses its mark.)

At the Boston opening night, the production lacked the snap of a well-oiled comic machine. Sloppy slapstick needs to be cleaned up, and comic relationships are still to be discovered. Most of all, the ensemble needs to come together. Right now, the audience is watching a series of individual comic riffs, some brilliant, some promising, some simply flat.

Clearly, there’s much work to be done before the show goes to Broadway. Right now, Dreyfuss’ heady tornado of a performance keeps the evening on course. But with care, the potential is there for this comedy to rightfully claim its place as an American classic.

Sly Fox

Shubert Theater, Boston; 1,650 seats; $88 top

  • Production: A Julian Schlossberg, Roy Furman, Ben Sprecher, Michael Gardner, Jim Fantaci, Cheryl Lachowicz, Christine Duncan and Nelle Nugent presentation, by arrangement with Andrew Braunsberg, of a play in two acts by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Arthur Penn.
  • Crew: Sets, George Jenkins, Jesse Poleshuck; costumes, Albert Wolsky; lighting, Phil Monat; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald, Carl Casella; wigs, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Marybeth Abel. Opened, reviewed Feb. 26, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.
  • Cast: Simon Able - Eric Stoltz Sly's Servants - Jeremy Hollingworth, Charles Antalosky, Linda Halaska Foxwell J. Sly, Judge - Richard Dreyfuss Lawyer Craven - Bronson Pinchot Jethro Crouch - Rene Auberjonois Abner Truckle - Bob Dishy Miss Fancy - Rachel York Mrs. Truckle - Elizabeth Berkley Crouch's Servant - Jason Ma Captain Crouch - Nick Wyman Chief of Police - Peter Scolari 1st Policeman - Robert LaVelle 2nd Policeman/ Bailiff - Gordon Joseph Weiss 3rd Policeman - Jeff Talbott Court Clerk - "Professor" Irwin Corey
  • Music By: