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Con artists
A new Sly Fox is groomed for Broadway

The rapacious miser is a time-honored archetype, and back in 1976, at the suggestion of his friend Arthur Penn, legendary comedy writer Larry Gelbart drafted Sly Fox, his own San-Francisco-gold-rush-set version of Ben Jonsonís satiric 1606 comedy Volpone. Stage and film director Penn, whose credits are a varied as The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, helmed the original production, a Broadway hit that featured the decidedly un-vulpine George C. Scott as Foxwell J. Sly. Twenty-six years later, heís overseeing a star-studded new edition that will have a pre-Broadway engagement in Boston beginning next week. This Sly Fox features Richard Dreyfuss as Foxwell along with Eric Stoltz, René Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot, Rachel York, Elizabeth Berkley, Professor Irwin Corey, Nick Wyman, Peter Scolari, and original-cast member Bob Dishy.

Speaking over the phone from New York, where Sly Fox is in rehearsal, the now 81-year-old Penn explains, "I thought thematically it was extremely appropriate right now. Itís a play about greed, and I thought that would be both funny and pertinent." These circumstances differ radically, however, from those surrounding the original production, which cropped up in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. "At the time, the country was depressed, and more or less in a state of shock. I think itís now in another kind of state of shock, which is unemployment and greed."

In the comedy, Foxwell, with the assistance of his canny servant Simon Able, bamboozles the town by pretending to be dying and promising everyone a mention in the will. Jonsonís play is a "comedy of humors" ó which means that each character represents a particular passion or trait. Gelbart picks up on that: since his Foxwell suffer from an excess of bile, the characterís kidneys, he says, "have gone into business for themselves."

"The original Volpone is based on a kind of Elizabethan morality, and this is somewhat different," says Penn, who suggested the Wild West setting to Gelbart. "I thought we needed a time when there was a lot of money flowing and a lot of recklessness." He adds that the tech boom and the shenanigans by the likes of Tyco and Enron inspired the revival. "It was a crazy boom that didnít involve most of us ó it involved the rich. As Truckleís wife says [in the play], ĎWe give the money to the poor,í and Truckle says, ĎThe poor! They donít know what to do with it!í "

Although Penn is known for exploring psychological subtext in his characters and subjects (think of Bonnie and Clyde and their twinned impulses toward sex and violence), he laughs when pondering the "depth" of characters named Truckle, Craven, and Crouch. "These are farcical characters ó what they all have is an excess of whatever central characteristic describes them. Itís a play about excess. As Crouch says, ĎI have everything I ever wanted. All I want now is more.í "

Excess ó and flexibility. How many parts could fit actors as different as Richard Dreyfuss and George C. Scott? "Theyíre both wonderful actors, and what you get is a different actor doing the same characteristics of the character, but of course they do it differently. I would guess that Richardís style is more lightweight comedic, though thatís not a description of him as an actor, and when playing in comedy he has a lighter touch. George had a very straight style."

Film and Broadway star Eric Stoltz, who plays Able, is finding that comedy is exercise. "Iím using my body in a brutalizing way. Iíve run around so much, Iíve banged my knee up, and Richardís hurt his back, and weíre like a basketball team, out there bloodied and bruised, trying to make it to the game."

Both Stoltz and Bob Dishy (whoís reprising the role of "greedy accountant" Truckle) cite the lightness of the script and Pennís involvement as inducements. Dishy had "reservations" when the opportunity arose last summer, but, he says, "that didnít last very long, because I remembered how much I enjoyed doing it the first time. And, of course, because Arthur was doing it again, and Larry will come up and see it and perhaps fine-tune it in a way. Itís so well-crafted ó his language ó itís like there are certain subtleties to be brought out."

And a good swindle. Audiences may remember Pennís last foray into trickery, the film Penn and Teller Get Killed. "This is more benign," says the director. "That was literally a film about death. This is about death feigned and its consequences. I think we enjoy being conned up to a point. I think we are in danger of exceeding that point politically, but I think itís fun to watch a good con."

Sly Fox is at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street in the Theater District, February 20 through March 7. Tickets, at $21 to $88, are available at the Shubert box office or through Telecharge at (800) 447-7400.

Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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