My family and I had the pleasure of seeing René in Sly Fox at the Barrymore Theatre on Saturday, April 17. The general plot of Sly Fox has been described in several of the reviews on René's Page, so I'm not going bother with that again, but just concentrate on my personal impressions of the performances.
First of all, although I can see what some of the opening night critics were complaining about in certain areas, for me the play was very successfully entertaining from beginning to end. Maybe I just arrived at the theatre prepared to enjoy myself, rather than looking for things to criticize… or maybe the show has settled down and improved since the critics wrote their reviews based on the final preview performances in late March. Whatever the reason, my family and I had a wonderful time.
I enjoyed Richard Dreyfuss as Foxwell Sly. He puts so much energy into the role, and really seems to be having fun! Sly has accumulated all his wealth by cheating other people, and is quite proud of his skill. And he never ceases to be entertained by the foolishness of the people he cheats -- after all, if they weren't so greedy and selfish, they wouldn't be vulnerable to his tricks in the first place! Sly pursues his clever schemes with such glee it's contagious.
Eric Stoltz was energetic, enthusiastic, and sincere as Sly's assistant, Simon Able. I can see how another actor might play the character differently, and make him funnier, but I was content with Stoltz's interpretation, in which Able serves more or less as a straight man -- the closest thing to a "normal" person in the story, compared with all the wild and crazy comedians around him.
Like Able, the two female characters, played by Rachel York and Elizabeth Berkely, served mostly as support and background to the other characters. Ms. York projected an aura of sensuality and self-confidence as the experienced prostitute, Miss Fancy, and Ms. Berkely was a paragon of virtue and complete innocence as Mrs. Truckle.
For me, many of the best moments of the play came when one or more of the three victims of Sly's schemes were on stage. Bronson Pinchot goes from anxiety to desperation to full-blown panic as Lawyer Craven. Bob Dishy is utterly wonderful as Sly's mild-mannered accountant, Abner Truckle -- mild-mannered, that is, except when he's being insanely jealous about his lovely young wife, or coming up with violent suggestions on how to speed the "deathly ill" Sly into his grave.
René, as the ancient Jethro Crouch, is almost too funny to describe -- but I'll try. Crouch is a grouchy old miser, and René plays brilliantly with all of those character traits. He takes his six-foot frame and crouches, with bent knees and back, half-leaning on his cane, until Crouch is shorter than anyone else on stage. Crouch looks, and moves, remarkably like an animated bag of bones. His miserliness shows in, among other things, his physical reactions to the sight of gold; the mere thought of having to part with an object of value wrings a pained whimper out of him. Crouch is also arguably the meanest of the greedy "friends" of Sly. He's delighted at the fact that he keeps outliving his business rivals, and several of his self-satisfied pronouncements end in a wonderful, cackling laugh that cracked up the audience every time. When he gets aggravated -- which happens frequently -- he lashes out with his cane, at furniture or people or whatever is annoying him. Between his bent posture and the way he flails about with his cane, he often seems to be tottering across the stage, and he's so thin and frail looking and unsteady on his feet that you expect him to topple over any second. Crouch may be ancient, but he's tough, and determined to be named as Sly's heir, no matter what!
There is so much funny dialogue it's hard to quote specific exchanges -- besides, much of the fun comes from the context, often with an element of surprise thrown in for good measure. This comedy isn't based on sophisticated, intellectual wit. Instead, it's more in the tradition of burlesque -- lots of plays on words, insults, sexual innuendo, and good old-fashioned slapstick, physical humor. Also, each incident in the play builds toward the next. For instance, the more we see of Truckle, the more we learn of his possessive attitude toward his wife, and therefore the funnier it becomes when he's confronted with the possibility of assuring his position as the sole heir to Sly's fortune by allowing Sly to bed his wife.
One thing that struck me, as my family and I talked about the play the next day, was the different ways different actors perform comedy. Bronson Pinchot did outrageously funny things as Craven, and certainly made the audience laugh uproariously with his antics. His style is broad, physical comedy -- he plays Craven with a bizarre "twitch" that comes and goes at unexpected moments, big gestures, and lots of energetic running around, especially when the furious Captain Crouch (Jethro Crouch's son) threatens him with physical violence in the second act.
But Bob Dishy, and René, who are both hilarious, seem to achieve their results via a different approach. For example, when Truckle faces the suggestion of giving his wife to Sly, he undergoes an agony of indecision. His eyes widen, he grimaces, he tugs at his hair, he doubles over, clutching his stomach as if he's been stabbed… These are all physical gestures, true, but they're also a perfect expression of the inner turmoil of the character. Truckle is being torn apart by the conflict between his jealousy and his greed, and the conflict leads directly to his behavior. The humor comes not simply from the way he acts, but why he is acting that way.
The same is true of René. Crouch's way of walking is funny to look at, but it's also a truthful expression of who the character is -- an extremely old man. Similarly, there is a wonderful showstopping scene in the first act, when Miss Fancy visits Crouch and proceeds to seduce him. Crouch reacts to what she is doing…. and then his reaction grows, and changes, and continues to evolve, with the audience laughing more and more as the seconds tick by. Miss Fancy keeps talking while René is carrying on, but I have no idea what she was saying -- the audience laughter completely drowned out her lines. And of course, it doesn't matter; the focus of the moment is Crouch.
At first glance, one might say that all René is doing in that scene is making funny faces… but it's more than that. The changes in his expression are the result of what the character is feeling. As with Truckle, we laugh not only at the what Crouch is doing and how he does it, but at the entire situation.
All in all, I found Sly Fox to be a very funny play. Even though various members of the cast created their comic effects in different ways -- movement, expression, and of course Larry Gelbart's clever dialogue -- the overall effect was the same: fun for the audience! By the end of the show, I had been smiling and laughing so continuously that my face ached. Better still, I can clearly recall moments from the play -- especially some of René's best scenes -- that, by just thinking about them, make me grin all over again.
Sly Fox may not satisfy everyone. But if you can laugh at the human foible of greed, and all the mischief it can lead to, combined with a hearty helping of sarcastic observations about human nature and lawyers, plus some excellent physical goofing around, I bet you would enjoy this show.