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The Fox that Got Away

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Comedic art is sacrificed in Broadway’s “Sly Fox” revival

Like their lead character Foxwell J. Sly, the producers of the revival of “Sly Fox” know a thing or two about acquiring gold. This slick, breezy production is unabashedly superficial, chock-full of cheesy jokes, and takes the “anything for a laugh” school of low comedy as far as it can go—and then some.

“Sly Fox” is a particular type of Broadway show that leverages the easy familiarity and lowbrow of the typical sitcom and translates it to the stage, allowing the audience the presumably unalloyed and guilt-free pleasure of watching major stars known and loved in other media make total fools of themselves. It’s a tried and true formula that’s as predictable as the situations and the laugh lines.

In fact, through most of the production now at the Ethel Barrymore, for what will inevitably be a long run, one can almost hear the rim shots punctuating each bit of comic business.

Larry Gelbart has honed his facility for lowest-common-denominator television writing to a fine point in updating Ben Jonson’s “Volpone,” and director Arthur Penn delivers on every facile gag, leaving no opportunity for titillating vulgarity unexploited. The original production in 1976 was a crowd pleaser, and the revival is every bit as much so. While this is certainly “Broadway for Dummies,” it is impossible to argue with something so completely and transparently true to what it is.

To be fair, Jonson’s original play is no crowning theatrical achievement. It is a silly potboiler with its roots in commedia dell ’arte, placing stock characters in canned situations with predictable results. Its familiarity contributes to the comedy, much as the anticipation of a pie in the face contributes to the knee-slapping hysteria of the act.

In Mr. Gelbart’s version, Volpone becomes Mr. Sly, and the setting is translated from Renaissance Venice to San Francisco at the start of the nineteenth century. Sly feigns illness and holds his impending “death” over the heads of his many prospective legatees as a means of extorting more gold from them, promising they will all get it back when he dies as each is promised to be Sly’s sole heir. The course of swindling and manipulation, with Sly aided by his loyal servant Simon Able, is the entire plot. It follows fairly strict commedia lines and along the way Sly fools the lawyer, swindles an old man, and convinces Abner Truckle, his rival, to stoop to compromising Mrs. Truckle’s virtue because Truckle thinks in doing so he’ll get rich. Of course, Sly outfoxes them all and gets the last laugh—just as you would expect it to be.

For what it is, “Sly Fox” is the best of its type. A curmudgeon might argue that the modern sitcom, or the very existence of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, renders this kind of entertainment tiresome and obsolete, yet for those who ask of Broadway nothing more than a live version of what they find in their living rooms, this may be absolutely perfect.

Certainly the cast does its best to deliver on that promise. As Sly, Richard Dreyfuss skates by on superficial charm. His performance is an example of how a star believes he or she can demand credit just for showing up, something the audience at the performance I saw was only too willing to pile on. So who can argue with what appears to work?

On deeper consideration, Dreyfuss is most likely restraining his talent, for in his second role as The Judge, he reveals his entire range giving a performance that is clearly an homage to Tim Conway from the “Carol Burnett Show” as if he were channeling Yosemite Sam.

Bronson Pinchot is appropriately quirky as Lawyer Craven, with all manner of stock tics and grimaces. Rene Aubernjonois is often quite funny as the predictable old man, and Bob Dishy mugs his way through the role of Abner Truckle with appealing excess. Rachel York has a charming, family-friendly voluptuousness as the courtesan Miss Fancy, though it’s curious why she slips in and out of a Southern accent.

Peter Scolari as the Chief of Police has been directed to make a shameless fool of himself finding riotous effect in the endless repetition of leers and uncontainable sexual repression. Eric Stoltz, on the other hand, gives a fine performance of controlled comedy, as the straight man and foil for all the uproarious antics of the plot.

The scenic design by George Jenkins and Jesse Poleshuck is done in Crayola colors with an eye more toward folding everything up for the inevitable tour than artistic achievement, and the costumes by Albert Wolsky have a perma-pressed quality that should likewise allow them to travel well.

If this is your kind of show, you will have a fantastic time and avoid all that nasty thinking that headier Broadway shows so often demand. If, like me, you would find it more pleasant to spend an evening chewing on a cud of tin foil and ground glass, you might wish to invest your time and money elsewhere.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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