The 56-year-old Academy Award-winning actor has returned to the stage in a revival of Larry Gelbart's hilarious 1976 comedy, based loosely on Ben Jonson's early 17th century classic, "Volpone." In the show at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, he plays San Francisco swindler and miser Foxwell J. Sly in the first act and a hanging judge in the second.
The roles, originally played by George C. Scott, require contrasting characterizations, but Dreyfuss is up to the challenge and carries off both with grand panache. Foxwell J. Sly is a cool customer, a smooth-mannered and even elegant man used to living the good life in an ornate mansion on his ill-gotten gold. The judge is a crude, rootin'-tootin' caricature right out of a movie Western, with a saloon bar as his courtroom.
Gelbart, a leading writer for stage, screen and television, has set his play in the post-Gold Rush era when San Francisco was a rip-roaring town full of shysters of all stripes such as the conniving Lawyer Craven played by Bronson Pinchot, the hypocritical husband played by Bob Dishy, and the false friend played by Rene Auberjonois. Even Sly's faithful servant Simon, played attractively by Eric Stoltz, suffers an advanced case of money madness.
Sly plays them all for fools. He bilks them by extending hope that they will inherit a large part of his estate if they keep bringing him golden trinkets, such as a stolen communion chalice, to show how devoted they are to their "dearest friend." He pretends to be terminally ill, receiving his greedy guests as he writhes in pain in his regally canopied neo-Renaissance bed.
Dishy's character, Abner Truckle, even offers up his beautiful wife, played demurely by Elizabeth Berkley (making her Broadway debut) to seal his friendship. As a contrast to Mrs. Truckle, there is a Barbary Coast prostitute, Miss Fancy, played by Rachel York with "come up and see me sometime" mannerisms, who would like to marry Sly. The cast is rounded out by the actor who calls himself Professor Irwin Corey playing an addled court clerk.
This comedy of chicanery is the most entertaining romp Broadway has to offer, though it may not win any prizes as the Tony Awards season approaches. Gelbart's dialogue sparkles wickedly and he is no slouch as a match for Ben Jonson in inventing amusing aphorisms. Dreyfuss's swagger as Sly, when he isn't in bed, is fun to watch, and Auberjonois as the aged Jethro Crouch is a hoot.
It's a joyous evening in the theater without bringing anything particular new to the stage or straining the audience's intelligence.
It may seem dated and its humor too broad for those of demanding tastes, but for others who go to the theater to be put in good humor rather than educated, enlightened or uplifted, "Sly Fox" fills the bill and offers fine performances by the leads and at least two supporting actors -- Peter Scolari, as an oversexed police chief, and Nick Wyman as a pompous Army captain.
The renowned Arthur Penn, who gave Gelbart the idea to write the play nearly 30 years ago, has directed it with a delicious sense of the outrageous, and scenic designers George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck have provided handsome period sets illuminated lovingly with a gaslight softness by Phil Monat. Albert Wolsky's late Victorian costumes are an eye-filling treat, especially Miss Fancy's fancy gowns.
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