Wily 'Fox' gets new life

It's four days before the curtain goes up on the revival of Larry Gelbart's comedy, "Sly Fox," on a tryout run in Boston before its mid-March Broadway opening.

Yet Beantown's Shubert Theatre is still heaving in the preproduction chaos known as technical rehearsal. On stage, the wood-paneled walls of Foxwell Sly's bedroom are moving into place, while the designers out front set the light cues on the 19th-century San Francisco street scene.

When director Arthur Penn isn't explaining an entrance or resetting a prop, he sits quietly down front. The veteran of such film and stage works as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Miracle Worker" isn't showing any signs of panic. After all, he's sort of been here before.

It was Mr. Penn who suggested in 1976 that Mr. Gelbart (creator of the television series "M*A*S*H") adapt a play from Ben Jonson's 16th-century classic, "Volpone." The show, starring George C. Scott, ran more than 495 performances on Broadway, also after a Boston tryout.

" 'Sly Fox' struck me as so appropriate for these big greedy times," says Penn about why he thought the time was right for a revival. "I heard about this case, Enron, and Tyco, and that party given by that man in Europe. This is a period of that kind of greed."

Gelbart put it best in one line from the play: "I have everything I ever wanted. All I want now is more."

Richard Dreyfuss heads the current cast as the miser, Sly. On stage in a billowing white nightshirt, Sly pretends to be bed-ridden, so he can bamboozle his so-called friends into giving him their money in hopes of being named his heir.

A highly regarded star of both stage and film, Dreyfuss is Penn's insurance against a highly volatile Broadway season that hasn't been kind to straight plays. And the director says he isn't worried. "I'm not apprehensive about bringing in a play. I think we need a comedy - desperately," he says.

Penn admits that fewer shows now can afford the luxury of a tryout in a city such as Boston. "It is more a question of economics and lack of foresight," he says, noting that many producers now prefer to stay in New York for previews. "The nice thing about going to a city like Boston is that there's an independent opinion which can be very helpful. The cast know this is a funny play but they want to know, 'Where is it funny?' " he says.

The Boston critics gave Penn and the actors plenty to work on, in a series of mixed reviews that gave the supporting actors - Bob Dishy, Irwin Corey, Rene Auberjonois, Rachel York, and Bronson Pinchot - higher marks for comedy than Dreyfuss and Eric Stolz, who play the leads.

Although he is better known as a screen actor, the New York-based Dreyfuss often returns to the stage despite the lower salary. "You don't make money on the theater unless you're a crook or you own it," he says. "Money is not the only reason," he adds. "I go where there's fun."

The actor is no less involved in politics and liberal causes than his career. When asked if his activism had led him into trouble, he answers, "Not enough."

Next up for Dreyfuss is the role of Max Bialystock in the London production of "The Producers" later this year.

"I saw the show in L.A. and mentioned that it looked like a lot of fun. Two days later, Mel Brooks called me. I went, 'Awww! You know I don't sing or dance.' "

Even so, Dreyfuss got the part after singing the show's centerpiece, "Springtime for Hitler," in audition. "It's going to be pretty interesting," he concludes.

"Sly Fox" is at Boston's Shubert Theatre through March 7. At New York's Barrymore Theatre, opening for previews, March 12; opening night, April 1.

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