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Supporting cast steals the show in 'Sly Fox'

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

"Sly Fox" has been pitched this way: You really want to see this restaging of Larry Gelbart's riotously funny 1978 comedy because it stars Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz. By the way, it also has several well-known comedians and character actors.

If there were truth in advertising, the pitch would be: You might want to see this restaging of Larry Gelbart's often amusing 1978 comedy because it has Rene Auberjonois, Bob Dishy, Peter Scolari, Bronson Pinchot, Rachel York, and Professor Irwin Corey. Oh, and by the way, Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, and Elizabeth Berkley are in it.

Not that diehard fans of Dreyfuss will be disappointed; his vulpine Foxwell J. Sly is thoroughly competent. Sly's con -- borrowed from Ben Jonson's "Volpone," on which Gelbart based this work -- is to convince three rich San Franciscans in the late 1800s to give him their gold with the assurance that he'll be leaving it to them once he dies, which he also convinces them will be any day now.

As the comedy begins, Dreyfuss conspires with his indentured servant (played by Stoltz) with a sing-song, what-am-I-doing-here delivery. He's matched in woodenness by Berkley, cast against "Showgirls" type as a virgin bride.

There's no such lack of presence from the rest of the supporting cast. Corey's few lines bring down the house. Scolari's lusty policeman is hysterical in the second act. Dishy brings his usual Borscht Belt flair as Sly's accountant. Pinchot as a sleazy lawyer comes alive when he mounts Sly's defense in the second act. Auberjonois is such a great old coot that his claim to have been declared dead while taking a nap is thoroughly believable, particularly when he falls asleep after York puts his hand down her dress.

That is typical of the humor in "Sly Fox," which has been described as a satire worthy of the age of Enron. But one has to do more than show greed to lay claim to satire of contemporary mores.

Dreyfuss is closer to the truth in describing "Sly Fox" as a combination 17th-century play and Friar's Club Roast. Gelbart's lines are clever, recalling his dialogue from the musical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," or the television series he helped create, "M*A*S*H." But the jabs at lawyers and the nonstop sexual innuendoes, which might have been naughty in the era of Johnny Carson monologues, feel quite tame in the age of HBO shows.

And for a comedy about unbridled greed, Dreyfuss seems too reined in. His greatest comic appearances -- "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "What About Bob?" -- have been as a straight man. Here he needs to be the take-charge man instead of the emcee for his costars. His big farcical moment should be when he chases Berkley around the room, but the timing isn't all it should be as yet. Perhaps it will be by the time the play moves to Broadway.

Dreyfuss also plays the judge in a saloon turned courtroom in the penultimate scene. Despite his Yosemite Sam look and demeanor, it's Scolari, Corey, and Pinchot who make this the best part of the show. Give him credit for getting out of their way, but if "Sly Fox" means to make an impact, Dreyfuss -- and Stoltz -- need to deliver more bang to justify all the bucks the audience is paying.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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