One of the pleasures of true ensemble acting is the way supporting players can buoy a production, making you forget, the deficiencies in the main roles. I had this experience at Sly Fox, Larry Gelbart's reworking of Jonson's Volpone, or, rather, Gelbart's reworking of Stefan Zweig's 1924 German adaptation of Volpone.
Transferred to post-Gold Rush San Francisco, Gelbart (whose writing credits include M*A*S*H and Tootsie) gives us a wealthy conman who shams dying, to cheat those angling to be named in his will.
Richard Dreyfuss, as the conman Foxwell Sly, and Eric Stoltz, as his manservant, are perfectly fine: the former, revving up for his London bow later this year in The Producers, conveys an infectious delight in greed; and the latter effectively feigns devotion while indulging in outright chicanery.
Yet it is the small bits that yield the big laughs. Bob Dishy is the model of hypocrisy. His double-takes are cartoon-perfect. Rene Auberjonois, as stooped schemer Mr Crouch, gives unscrupulousness a good name. And Peter Scolari is a very funny, sex-starved sergeant-at-arms. If the supporting players shine, it isn't because Gelbart hasn't done his part. He provides director a solid structure and delights in his central conman, avoiding any hint of redemption. In a season where the New York stage's other prominent sharp-edged comedy, Tim Robbins's Embedded, makes the whole notion of doing satire in an age of mock-TV newscasts seem obsolete, Gelbart helps restore the genre.
But the high points come mostly after the interval and the evening becomes less about slightly strained topicality - with implied resonance to current-day scandals, from Enron and Tyco to weapons of mass destruction - than about 19th-century San Francisco.
Photo from Boston rehearsals in February 2004
(Originally posted on Playbill.com.)