PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Fun Run for Fools' Gold at Sly Fox

By Harry Haun
April 2, 2004

There being no fool like an old fool, it was quite apt that the second Broadway coming of Sly Fox fell on April Fool's Day.

Stars were out in full force Thursday, on stage and on the other side of the footlights. The after party at Tavern on the Green only brought the kilowatts up more so you could see the celebs glowing. A press room just beyond the entrance smoothly accommodated the parade of name brand players and the fourth-estate, ever-ready to photograph and report.

Richard Dreyfuss — or Duddy Kravitz gone west and rustic — led the stage merriment as a particularly miserable, miserly case in point: an unworthy named Foxwell J. Sly, who fleeces his "best" (read: greediest) friends with a protracted and totally faux death scene.

George C. Scott and Robert Preston worked the same ruse in the comedy's previous incarnation in 1977 and 1978, Bert Lahr pranced out a musical version (Foxy), Rex Harrison did the movie edition ("The Honey Pot"), and scads of others have impersonated the cad in the 398 years since Ben Jonson first created him and christened him Volpone.

Five cases of deja vu were reported on this latest reentry alone: Adapter Larry Gelbart, the "M*A*S*H" man, tinkered some with his original script; director Arthur Penn instilled a frenetic clip on a whole new cast, save one (that one being the lone Tony nominee from the original starry production, Bob Dishy, who still does a hilarious high-wire act of a man vacillating between jealousy and sacrificing his young wife to Fox for the loot). The costumes of Albert Wolsky and the sets of George Jenkins were deemed re doable, too.

It was one of those opening nights where the audience was all-accepting, and even the visible gaffs got laughs. One could stop a girl from sashaying: Rachel York, who played (by way of Mae West) Dreyfuss' wannabe fiancee, looked spectacular in Wolsky's bustled-to-hustle period-piece costumes but had a little negotiation problem in the second act, catching the tail of her dress in the door on her way out. "With those big bustles," York said, "you can't even turn around, and I had to exit onto this one square-foot platform, and it takes lots of technique to get through there." A stage manager finally extricated her.

Then there was a computerized set that belched a bit after it completed the scene change. Dreyfuss, Dishy and Eric Stoltz, who plays Dreyfuss' not-entirely trusty manservant, were doing a scene in Dreyfuss' freshly restored and swirled-into-place bedroom when the set, on its own, moved a few more inches into place. The never napping Dishy looked skyward and startled as if Frisco's '03 quake had come early — and did it again when the set jumped again as he was exiting. "Inspired moments like that are what actors love," he said later. "When you have to do a show eight times a week, it can't always be inspired."

Dreyfuss and Stoltz manfully maintained their composure through this but were bright-faced about it. "The set was just possessed," groused Dreyfuss gleefully. "When those things happen, it's just out of your hands. It's better than forgetting your lines."

Mishaps like that are always happening with a show as complex as this, said Stoltz. "Last night I went to pull the rope to call the servants, and the rope came off in my hands," he said, just for instance. He rather likes his status of relative sanity in the zany proceedings. "I'm essentially the straight man in it, ushering in all these wonderfully wacky characters. It keeps me in shape because I'm running around the stage all the time. I'm like the stuffed rabbit who runs ahead of the dogs. They keep chasing it, and I have to keep running."

Director Penn, who had a short commute home after the party (he lives directly across the street from Tavern on the Green), felt that, of the 10 shows that he brought to Broadway, Sly Fox was the one that bore repeating. "I just thought this was a show that would fit the times," he explained. "We got Enron out there, we got Tyco out there. There's a lot of greed out there. It was just so appropriate I couldn't resist the chance to stage it again."

Gelbart gives Penn full credit for greenlighting the revival. "I never thought it would get done again," he admitted. "It kinda enjoys a good life in subsidiaries with colleges and summer stock, but the idea of doing it again on Broadway was Arthur's and [lead producer] Julian Schlossberg's. And I know a good idea when I hear someone say it."

At intermission he was spotted on a cellphone, calling in the results of the first act. "I was calling my wife at the Melrose Hotel. She was too ill to attend tonight." (His wife of 47 years is stage actress-singer Patricia Marshall, remembered for the "Good News" movie.)

Like Penn, an agile 81, Gelbart is brimming with Broadway prospects. A Star Is Born is gone with the wind, he says, "but Cy Coleman and I just did a show with Marilyn and Alan Bergman on the coast which we call Like Jazz — and, yes, we're changing the title. It had a very successful limited run at the Mark Taper Forum so we're fixing that up. It's a musical revue. I'm writing the stuff in between songs. I want to do a book, too. If I lived anywhere near the New York City limits, I would have done two or three more by now."

He's also working on a screenplay with, and for, Robert Redford — a sequel to Jeremy Larner's 1972 script, "The Candidate," "that character 30 years later. The original ended in freeze frame after he won the election, him saying, 'What do we do now?' This shows what he did. And I have a couple of things I hope to finish, which will be for the stage."

Elizabeth Berkley, in a backless, strapless red satin creation, took to the Tavern glitter-and-be-gay ambiance beautifully. This marked her Broadway debut, prompting this heartfelt remark: "It's amazing how, in life, once in a while, certain childhood dreams do come true — and this is one of them. The reality of it is fantastic. It's just gorgeous."

There is an inordinate amount of physical comedy on stage, and it was duly noted by Nick Wyman, who is spared all that, playing the one upright, ramrod straight, honest person in the show. He pays the price for that position, too. "I am a force of order in this atmosphere of disorder, and I'm thoroughly routed by the end of the play," he noted. "This cast is the Murderers' Row of Comedy, each one funnier than the last one."

Rene Auberjonois, who plays Wyman's arcane father, tools around the stage almost motorized as if he were riding a toy tricycle under his oversized black coat — a hysterically funny image. "I'm a mountain hiker, and my thighs are the strongest part of my body," he explained. "I slumped. The character's name, after all, is Crouch. And that's what I do."

Madeleine Gilford, widow of Jack who originated Auberjonois' role, paid her respects to him. "I remember Jack vividly," he confessed. "In fact, the only reason that I felt I could presume to follow in the footsteps of Jack is because I'm so totally different."

The shyster lawyer on the scene is played with tics and flamboyance to spare by brave Bronson Pinchot. "It says in the script he has a twitch, but I didn't come up with one 'til recently," he said. "His twitch is my twitch, except theatricalized. I have a bad spine — it's all knotted up — so I thought, What if I just do what I do when I can't get my neck right? Bingo!"

And he credits director Penn for leading him in the right direction. "Arthur's big thing with comic actors is to keep pretending that there's no such thing as comic business and treat it as if you have to find the emotional core, which is what he did with me. That's why the character has this huge drive to get what he wants. That's his big thing. Arthur gave me that drive, and I came up with exterior of it. I realized what it ended up being based on — I didn't realize what it was consciously — is the yellow journalism of the 19th century when they'd have an engraving of a courtroom orator. That's the period of the play, so it started being a newspaper engraving in the 1880s of a great courtroom drama."

Another over-the-top highpoint is provided by Peter Scolari, playing the chief of police who short-circuits imagining the crime of passion that has been committed and breaks into self-flagellation. "Bob Dishy and Rene Auberjonois helped me create that," Scolari admitted. "Both of them, in a performance in Boston, saw I was trying to get something done there so they both wheeled upstage, completely showing the audience the back of their heads — and that, in turn, put the fire under me." His performance, he said, is partly a result of their generosity.

—Harry Haun is staff writer for Playbill magazine, and has been attending Broadway opening nights since 1975.