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Sly Fox (04/01/2004 - 08/29/2004)


AP: "Humor Falls Flat in Sly Fox"

Greed never goes out of style (see Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc.) but "Sly Fox," in its first Broadway revival, has neither the luster nor the laughs it must have possessed nearly 30 years ago when George C. Scott was playing the duplicitous Foxwell J. Sly.

The production, which opened Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is more frenzied than funny, with a spirited supporting cast trying its best to inject some life into the frantic proceedings.

"Sly Fox," set in late 19th-century San Francisco, is a big, broad burlesque (a precursor to the stage version of "The Producers" in a way) and Larry Gelbart's play needs a big, broad comedian to pull off the title role and propel the evening.

Richard Dreyfuss, unfortunately, plays it small, turning Sly into merely a miserly con man instead of an ingratiating charlatan the audience can cheer.

The character sneers at those who lust only after gold - "God with an 'L' - gold," he proclaims. Yet the man has the same dream of owning as much of the stuff as he possible can: "To find it, to fondle it, the reason for living. To lie next to it in the earth, the only advantage of dying," Sly philosophizes.

It's not only Dreyfuss who appears humorless. There's a miscast Eric Stoltz, who portrays Sly's equally conniving manservant, Simon Able. Stoltz is more stolid than scamplike, and the banter between the two men falls flat.

Arthur Penn, director of the original 1976 production, returns for a second time here, and you'd think he would know how to camouflage the play's dead spots. But the evening still takes a while to wind up to full comic intensity - and that doesn't occur until Act 2.

Gelbart, who loosely based his convoluted play on Ben Jonson's "Volpone," carefully sets up the plot, introducing, one by one, the greedy folks who will be hoodwinked by Sly.

These lip-smacking scavengers are played by a trio of expert comedians: Bronson Pinchot, Bob Dishy and Rene Auberjonois. Pinchot twitches, Dishy (who played the same role in 1976) pops his eyes with delicious exasperation and Auberjonois creaks in hilarious decrepitude. Each of their characters is waiting for Sly to expire in hopes of being remembered in the dead man's will.

Gelbart, co-author of the book for the musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," peppers the play with jokes, but a surprising number fall flat, particularly in the early, stodgy exposition.

Things heat up after intermission during a raucous courtroom scene, in which Dreyfuss (dressed to look like Yosemite Sam) portrays a hangin' judge.

Here, several more comics get to strut their stuff, including Peter Scolari as a sex-crazed police chief and the venerable Professor Irwin Corey as the slowest-writing court clerk west of the Mississippi.

There are two women in major roles, and they have a difficult time competing with the accomplished male comedians. Rachel York, saddled with an unfortunate Mae West accent, is an uninspired lady of easy virtue, but Elizabeth Berkley has a moment or two of dumb sweetness as Dishy's devoutly religious wife.

What's best about Gelbart's play is its persistent acerbic attitude. A sure sense of comic belligerence seems to affect almost every character in the play, and there are a lot of them - 18 in all (including Dreyfuss doing double duty). Yet without the driving energy of a truly inspired leading man, this "Fox" is more stodgy than sly.


New York Daily News: "Still doggone funny, if uneven"

It's wonderful to have an old-fashioned comedy back on Broadway in the form of "Sly Fox," Larry Gelbart's 1976 retelling of Ben Jonson's 1606 comedy about avarice.

Although "Fox" is headlined by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, the real star is Gelbart, who collaborated on "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," developed "M*A*S*H for television and was a screenwriter for "Tootsie."

His comic dialogue is expert throughout, especially when he gets laughs out of Old West parlance ("Fox" is set in the Gold Rush days of San Francisco).

Dying, as we know, is easy. Comedy is hard.

"Sly Fox" deals with both. Con man Foxwell J. Sly (Dreyfuss) pretends to be dying and, with the help of his servant, Simon Able (Eric Stoltz), makes deals with all sorts of rich men, promising to make them his beneficiaries if they increase his wealth in the interim.

At its best, "Fox" should have an ensemble feel - like last weekend's miraculous Encores! presentation of the Gershwins' "Pardon My English," in which Brian D'Arcy James, Rob Bartlett, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Emily Skinner made the audience laugh helplessly at breathtakingly silly material.

Unlike Gary Griffin, who directed "Pardon," Arthur Penn has not found a uniform tone for "Fox." Every actor explores his own comedy.

Stoltz has a dashing charm as the nimble servant. Rene Auberjonois is masterly as one of the deservedly fleeced. Bob Dishy has an admirable deadpan as another impatient "benefactor."

Peter Scolari gives a gutsy, bravura performance as the police chief. The venerable Professor Irwin Corey practically steals his scene as a court clerk.

Bronson Pinchot, on the other hand, does a lot of shtick as a slimy lawyer. Rachel York is funny in a stock way as a prostitute. Elizabeth Berkley sounds a single note as Dishy's pious wife.

As for Dreyfuss, he has the requisite energy for broad comedy, particularly in a second-act surprise. But as Foxwell J. Sly (originated by George C. Scott), he does not have the stage voice or stature to make this crafty villain seductive or appealing.

The sets, by George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck, have period charm. Albert Soisky's costumes have great flair.

Whatever its weaknesses, "Sly Fox" is still full of infectious high spirits. In these stressful times, unalloyed laughter is always welcome.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Greed Expectations"

Playwright Larry Gelbart is no mere sly fox - he's also an extraordinarily smart cookie.

Just as Gelbart updated old Plautus in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," so, with "Sly Fox," he has taken Ben Jonson's "Volpone" as the shrewd point of departure for a play that mixes Jonson's 16th-century humor with vaudeville wisecracks.

It worked with gusto a quarter of a century ago for George C. Scott and, later, Robert Preston. And it still works for a velvet-smooth Richard Dreyfuss and Co.

The basic story is as old as the hills - a timeless tale of greed and con men who would find themselves equally at home on today's Wall Street as in the hucksterish days of gold-mad, 19th-century San Francisco, where Gelbert has set this tale.

Foxwell J. Sly (Dreyfuss), a gentleman of means, is dying - or so it seems. Sly Sly, with the assistance of his servant and apprentice in crime, Simon Able (Eric Stoltz), is only feigning death as the means to a cunning end.

Already Sly has three greedy men hovering around his imminent corpse like vultures, with each of them - Lawyer Craven (Bronson Pinchot), Jethro Crouch (Rene Auberjonois) and Abner Truckle (Bob Dishy) - convinced he will inherit Sly's fortune.

They bring Sly an endless stream of gold -cups, rings, anything the dying Midas fancies. Truckle is tricked into bringing his puritan wife (Elizabeth Berkley) to Sly's bedside; Crouch even disinherits his own son to ensure that he becomes Sly's sole beneficiary.

Gelbart's script is garnished with one-liners as crisp, effective and impersonal as a firing squad.

The jokes are both witty and hilarious, for Gelbart has a gift for combining slapstick with sophistication, a double whammy that gives Jonson's stock characters a new life.

Arthur Penn, who directed the play the first time around, has staged it here with one eye on Jonsonian character and the other on Gelbart's vaudeville sketch. Luckily, the eyes don't get crossed.

And the action - helped by the ingenious settings of the show's original designer, George Jenkins, and Jesse Poleshuck - rarely loses its comic momentum.

Dreyfuss' Sly is stealthily charming, but when he doubles as a rip-snorting Frisco judge, he pulls out all the stops.

His three dupes are finely etched: Pinchot's lawyer is a marvel of dislocated grimace; Dishy, a smarmy idiot of hypocrisy; and Auberjonois, so brilliantly aged he seems in danger of cracking in two.

Perhaps the one disappointment is Stoltz, who seems too bland and characterless.

But it's a good evening with a crisp 2lst-century moral: If you want to be wicked, be wicked in style.

New York Post

New York Times: "Stealthy, Wealthy, Joke-Wise"

The latest medical reports affirm that there is still no vaccine for the debilitating disease known as avarice. Nor is there any evidence that jokes about old age, sexual desperation, rape, bodily functions and bodacious bimbos have gone out of fashion. (Just turn on the Comedy Channel some night.) The evil that men do in the name of Mammon, swindling as a favorite American sport, illegal high jinks among upholders of the law: the ink has yet to dry on headlines about those subjects.

Why then does Larry Gelbart's ''Sly Fox,'' which trafficks briskly in all of the above, feel like such a relic? When this rowdy reinvention of Ben Jonson's ''Volpone'' first opened on Broadway in 1976, it was considered the last word in laugh-till-you-drop theater. And Mr. Gelbart's dissection of the lust for lucre would certainly seem to have a place in the age of the Enron and Tyco trials. Yet the sputtering revival that opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, with a big-name cast led by Richard Dreyfuss, only occasionally comes to full comic life. Though directed by no less a master than Arthur Penn, who staged the original Broadway version, the show brings to mind a car that's been left sitting in the garage for a couple of decades. It emits the occasional promising cough of ignition. But all the concentrated effort of a starry ensemble that just wants to be funny -- and that includes Eric Stoltz, Bronson Pinchot and Elizabeth Berkley -- can't make this production's engine turn over long enough to start purring.

In many ways ''Sly Fox'' would seem to belong to no particular era. Adapted from Jonson's play of 1606, about a filthy rich fellow who bilks his nasty acquaintances by pretending to be mortally ill, ''Sly Fox'' takes place in San Francisco in the late 1800's, when gold fever raged. Yet this comedy also has the distinctly salty flavor of the 1970's, when American cynicism blossomed in the shade of Watergate and the movie western was shedding its ideals and learning to talk dirty.

As the man who created the immensely popular television series ''M*A*S*H,'' which made skewering sacred cows a homey pastime, Mr. Gelbart was a comic laureate of this age of disillusion. Mr. Penn, who came from a solid Broadway background (''The Miracle Worker,'' ''Toys in the Attic''), had gone on to direct the iconoclastic film ''Bonnie and Clyde,'' as well as antiestablishment favorites like ''Little Big Man'' and ''Alice's Restaurant.'' And it seemed entirely appropriate when George C. Scott -- the outspoken actor who had refused an Oscar for ''Patton'' -- joined Mr. Penn and Mr. Gelbart to be the leading man of ''Sly Fox.''

By most accounts the chemistry crackled among these kindred spirits. ''Be warned,'' Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times on Dec. 15, 1976. ''A man might die laughing at 'Sly Fox.' '' And everyone I know who saw the show at that time swears it had audiences convulsing in merriment.

But for ''Sly Fox'' to pull off the same triumph 27 years later, it requires a sweeping comic confidence that this incarnation lacks. In retelling the story of Foxwell J. Sly (Mr. Dreyfuss) and his swindling of the vultures who gather at his make-believe deathbed, the show offers firm evidence of Mr. Gelbart's gift for melding low humor with high polish. This is the man, after all, who wrote the shamelessly and deliciously burlesque book for ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.''

The dialogue still gleams with wicked delight and logical absurdity. (''Sit down or I'll throw a noose around the place and hang the whole building,'' says a judge to an unruly courtroom.) But such lines stand out as they might at a comedians' roast. So do the less felicitous ones. (''All the way back to biblical times of yore, rape has been one of the most heinous offenses known to man. And it can be pretty rough on women, too.'')

What's crucially missing is the anarchic energy that would carry all the dialogue -- from the tasteless groaners to the neo-Jonsonian aphorisms -- before it. The performances need to be drawn with the same gargoylish strokes, so that the characters all seem to swim in -- and be shaped by -- the same toxic waters.

Several of the supporting cast members intermittently achieve this warped glory, most notably Bob Dishy, happily reprising the role he created in 1976 as an uxorious husband. But at the show's center, Mr. Dreyfuss and especially Mr. Stoltz (as Sly's servant, Simon Able) fail to set the standards of frenzied grotesquerie.

Mr. Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for ''The Goodbye Girl,'' appears disarmingly relaxed onstage. You can sense the actorly pleasure he takes from Sly's varied impersonations of an invalid. (Like George C. Scott, he gets to double in the role of the earthy Judge in the second act.) But you are also always aware of Mr. Dreyfuss the actor behind Fox the pretender.

Even when Sly is being the real Sly, Mr. Dreyfuss casually shifts tones of voice: sometimes sounding like Walter Brennan, sometimes like, well, Richard Dreyfuss. He makes sure that each joke scores. And he commands a sleazy, easy swagger that inspires hope for his next role: Max Bialystock in the London production of ''The Producers.'' But he never makes the essential leap into monstrosity. He is smaller and less ugly than he needs to be.

As the schemer modeled on Jonson's immortal Mosca, Mr. Stoltz appears even more reluctant to get his hands dirty in shaping a character. His Able is a forthright, all-American fellow with a shining conscience at odds with Mosca's moral ambiguity. Mr. Stoltz is more or less giving the same performance he gave as the boy next door in the Broadway revival of ''Our Town'' in 1988. It's as if Van Johnson were singing selections from ''The Threepenny Opera.''

Moving uncertainly through George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck's spic-and-span sets, which bring to mind a Gay 90's-theme ice cream parlor, the ensemble members only rarely achieve a shared comic rhythm. Mr. Dishy, who was nominated for a Tony the first time he appeared in ''Sly Fox,'' is the most assured.

His eyes bulge and his skin gleams with the selfish great expectations of his character, Truckle, and he makes vaudeville style seem as organic as breathing. René Auberjonois, as the ancient Jethro Crouch, and Mr. Pinchot, as Craven, the hypocritical lawyer (is there any other kind in comedy?), also provide some spontaneously funny moments.

As Truckle's innocent, eminently covetable wife, Ms. Berkley (of the notorious movie ''Showgirls'') looks appropriately curvaceous in wasp-waisted period costume. (The designer is Albert Wolsky.) By contrast, her voice is as flat as the prairies, and she doesn't seem to be in on the joke that is made of her character. (This is not a play for feminists.) As a prostitute par excellence, Rachel York does a passable imitation of Mae West. The nonagenarian Professor Irwin Corey makes a winningly precise art of being addled as a slow-writing clerk in the courtroom scene.

In a tone-setting speech in the opening scene, Sly assesses the view from his bedroom window. He sees ''the bay shimmering like diamonds,'' the hills ''as green as cash'' and ''the sun the color of gold.'' Vision that immediately translates nature into dollar signs is a primary symptom of the epidemic that is sweeping San Francisco in ''Sly Fox.''

It's an illness that drives folks into frenzies. So when an earthquake rocks the stage at the end of the first act, you should feel that it's just a natural extension of the violent money madness that possesses Mr. Gelbart's characters. Unfortunately, there's been very little in the performances here that would make old Frisco shake.

New York Times

Newsday: "'Sly' lawyers, for love and money"

Greed. Lechery. Lawyers. The combo worked for Ben Jonson in 1606, when the Renaissance scholar and jailbird troublemaker wrote his morality satire, "Volpone." The mix still worked, more or less, in 1976, when Broadway embraced Larry Gelbart's updated burlesque version as "Sly Fox," with George C. Scott as the top gentleman-swindler of San Francisco during the Gold Rush.

Fortunately enough for Broadway, if not mankind, Jonson was wrong when he believed he could teach virtue by exaggerating vice. After 28 years, greed and lechery and a lawyer - not to mention low-ball comedy and high-end foolishness - were just as pertinent last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with Richard Dreyfuss as scam master Foxwell J. Sly.

Although the original and the new productions were both directed by Arthur Penn, this version seems sweeter, less overbearing, with a gentler appreciation for the script's flights of devious wordplay. Scott was bigger than life and considerably meaner as a shyster who fakes mortal illnesses in order to exploit the greed of others. Two years later, in the road company, Jackie Gleason pushed Gelbart's silly sniggering from stylized bawdiness into smirking coarseness.

What we have now is a lavishly staged, naughty goof of a vaudeville, perhaps hilarious to those who love oversized humor, and no longer so annoying to those who do not. Penn has amassed a large cast of expert clowns, including the irresistibly dogged Bob Dishy, who reprises his original role of Abner Truckle, an accountant who would loan his pristine young wife to the rich old man, if only the coot would sign over his will and promptly die.

Dreyfuss plays Sly as a more likable, less furious fellow than those earlier incarnations of avarice. He seems more engaged by the spirit of ensemble than the opportunity to deliver a star turn. As the scheming Sly, whose pleasure is "not just enriching himself but depriving someone else," he wears a long nightshirt and bounces around a massive bedroom with cathedral windows and a canopy bed. But Dreyfuss may he having an even better time when he does double duty in the second act's courtroom/saloon scene, playing a twanging, hanging judge in the spirit of Yosemite Sam.

Eric Stoltz has a bemused Jiminy Cricket quality as Sly's stsaight man, Simon Able, a well-kept, indentured servant who works off his gambling debts by enabling the scams. But the main events really belong to the classic theater actors and classic and Borscht Belt comic actors who play Sly's sycophants.

Dishy's Abner is a jealous maniac who, nonetheless, gives away his wife, the surprisingly droll Elizabeth Berkley (still standing after the nearly career-destroying stripper movie "Showgirls").

Rene Auberjonois, as a rich old miser named Crouch, snorts while he crouches and nods off with his hand on the breast of Miss Fancy, the wily "pleasure engineer," played with an enjoyably licentious Mae West-em inflection by Rachel York.

"Professor" Irwin Corey has a priceless cameo as a decrepit court stenographer who says more with just a quill than younger actors can communicate with joke-punching,

Bronson Pinchot seems unable to help himself from overdoing the twitch joke as Lawyer Craven, but he does have a prurient way with a chest of gold at the end of Sly's bed. Nick Wyman is suitably puffed-up and outraged as Crouch's disinherited son, while Peter Scolari manages to neutralize dubious rape humor as a libidinously ravenous police chief.

Original set designer George Jenkins, assisted here by Jesse Poleshuck, devised five contrasting environments with seven turntable-crazy set changes. Albert Wolsky, also from the first creative team, designed meticulous costumes, including improbably gorgeous wasp-waisted gowns for the women andold shoes for Crouch that actually seem to sneer.

Despite such sophistication, theatergoers with low thresholds for low comedy should be warned: When someone tells the judge to "throw the book at 'em," the judge throws a book. It is that kind of show.


USA Today: "Dreyfuss able, but casting sinks Sly Fox"

Watching the new Broadway revival of Larry Gelbart's 1976 comedy Sly Fox (* * * out of four), I was reminded of that adage about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link.

Certainly, this production, which opened Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre, boasts as much name talent as any other currently on the boards.

In addition to Gelbart, who adapted the play from Ben Johnson's Volpone, original director Arthur Penn is on hand. Another celebrated film and theater veteran, Richard Dreyfuss, leads a starry cast in the role of Foxwell J. Sly, the miserly con man who pretends to be dying so he can trick a bevy of covetous friends and associates.

Sly is abetted by his servant and protégé, Simon Able, played by Eric Stoltz, who is, well, not able. However impressive some of his previous turns on stage and in movies such as Mask and Pulp Fiction, Stoltz clearly lacks the comic facility that Gelbart's wry dialogue demands. The actor projects a boyish earnestness that is completely wrong for this nimble, crafty character, robbing even his wittiest lines of their snap and crackle.

Though Stoltz's performance is the most obvious flaw here, it is by no means the only example of egregious miscasting.

One is inclined to be charitable to Elizabeth Berkley, a pretty blonde who had the great misfortune of rising to notoriety as the star of Paul Verhoeven's infamous big-screen turkey Showgirls. But as the young wife of Sly's greedy accountant, a sweetly pious bimbo with some potentially hilarious moments, Berkley brings to mind a nervous cheerleader appearing in her first high-school talent show. While defending Sly's honor in a satirically rich trial scene, she blurts, "Do I have time for a quick Mass somewhere?" Her delivery is so bland and awkward that she might as well be asking a stage hand for her next cue.

Others in the cast veer toward the opposite extreme. Bronson Pinchot's alternately mugging and mincing take on Sly's lawyer is too precious by half, while Nick Wyman manages to seem at once stiff and overzealous as a Navy captain whose inheritance is threatened by Sly and Able's scheming.

Some serve Gelbart's material more capably.

Dreyfuss deftly handles both Sly's deadpan quips and his duplicitous stints as a sickly old man, and he is similarly impressive moonlighting as a corrupt judge in one scene. Rachel York, playing a working girl with her eye on Sly's fortune, looks every bit as bootylicious as Berkley but conveys far more inner sparkle and savvy. Rene Auberjonois and Professor Irwin Corey lend winning drollness as, respectively, an elderly gold digger and a court clerk way past his physical and mental prime.

All told though, this Fox offers little cunning and less bite than its pedigree suggests.

USA Today

Variety: "Sly Fox"

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.


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