by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Murray Chase
Venice Theatre’s Mainstage
140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice, 941-488-1115
Jan. 12-31, 2010

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Sly Fox comes with an enviable pedigree. Its story is of a greedy rich man who pretends to be deathly ill to bilk avaricious associates out of their wealth. With the help of a wily servant, he convinces each to give him gifts to make him name the giver his heir. Ben Jonson created him as the titled anti-hero of his best known, intricately structured play, Volpone, based on an earlier one by Seneca and elements of Commedia. A simplified adaptation in German by Stephan Zweig, translated into French for its national theatre, also became a film classic starring famed Louis Jouvet. Zweig’s version in English became the usual Volpone staged as a popular vehicle in the U.K. and U.S. the second half of the 20th century. Sly Fox (Volpone means “Fox” in Italian) is comedy writer Larry Gelbart’s borrowing from Jonson via Zweig, It uses the basic plot and characters but transposes them to 19th century San Francisco. No really great reason for the latter occurs until Act II, which may be the funnier or, for fans of Gelbart, at least show more of his talent for broad farce, jokes, and innuendo-filled dialogue.

At Venice Theatre, director Murray Chase stresses farce, so Gelbart’s more subtle remarks basically go unnoticed. So broadly does Neil Kasanofsky play richly garbed Foxwell J. Sly that his transformation into a red-shirted, low-belted, dusty-booted movie-Western Judge (of himself) in Act II doesn’t surprise by contrast. His sustained energy, though, is as laudable as that of his much younger accomplice Able (Eric Schneider), forced to pay off his gambling debts through servitude but obviously loving  involvement in deception. Foremost among the feigning flatterers, Craven (Ronald Krine Myroup, black in dress and temperament) brings a stolen gold chalice to get Sly to fill in his will with the lawyer’s name. Old miser Crouch (Jack Paul Rabito, constantly grasping air or whatever toward his bent-over self) agrees to disinherit his own navy hero son (mightily assertive Ray Burroughs) to merit Sly’s leavings. His business partner old Truckle (Stacy Gilson, servile or stern as required) tries to poison Sly but isn’t successful. Though he usually keeps his much younger wife locked up, completely chaste, he turns panderer to Sly’s lusty desire for her (interpreted as a pious bimbo by a tired Stacy Gilson). As local prosperous prostitute Miss Fancy, so-funny Candice Sullivan provides lusty and busty “entertainment” to Sly, charging him to give his name in marriage so as to legitimize her natural son.

She later attracts the Keystone-cop-like police chief (Ken Fromer, eyes and shirt-button popping), fresh from dallying with a saloon girl (cute, agile Ali McManamy) during a trial for supposed murder of Sly. Bennett Gross seems to sluff off a cameo as Western soap opera court clerk.

Like Jonson, Larry Gelbart used names to denote character. Unlike Jonson’s names, which were all of animals and insects that suggested how they could be performed, Gelbart’s are mixed in meaning—however apt they may be in denoting the dual leads.  Similarly, Venice Theatre’s production is a mixed bag. Nicholas Hartman’s costumes, especially Fancy’s predominantly fuschia taffetas and the black and grey get-ups of Craven and Crouch, are thoroughly professional. Lighting by John M. Andzulis and sound by Dorian Boyd are adequate. For the difficult scenic design, David Lynn-Jones divides the very wide Mainstage into spaces for scene changes that take fuss to manipulate. Stage Manager Sandra Henderson would seem to have her hands full. Venice Theatre under Chase aims to present substantial plays, often like this one in an area premiere, but the achievement is amateurish.

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