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SLY FOX

Bowen Park Theatre Company

at Synergy Center

Larry Gelbart's cynicism ill suits the holiday spirit--and thank God. Sly Fox, a wicked 1976 updating of Ben Jonson's wry masterpiece Volpone, is a sharp tonic in the season of schmaltz. Chock-full of bawdy irreverence, nasty double crosses, and justifiable misanthropy, it's a sort of curmudgeon's revenge for all the manufactured pieties of Christmastide.

The premise--"there's no bottom to greed"--is sitcom simple. That's appropriate since Gelbart was yukmaster for M*A*S*H and City of Angels. The dazzling script is decorated with puns, wisecracks, and vaudeville one-liners and two-liners ("I want to prefer charges!" "Which charges do you prefer?").

The Bowen Park Theatre Company, a professional troupe from Waukegan, makes a welcome, rambunctious Chicago debut. Mark Heller's witty staging wholeheartedly mines the play's many laughs. You can't ask for more.

The plot, transported from 17th-century Venice to fin de siecle San Francisco, hews close to Jonson's tale until the end. Foxwell J. Sly, in cahoots with his parasitic servant Simon Able, is scamming a set of worthy gulls by pretending to be dying in slow motion. "For me death would be a convalescence," he sighs. He's a mere "headstone's throw away from eternity," oppressed by "a fever bright enough to read by."

The "misers and misfits" he fleeces are shyster lawyer Craven; senile Jethro Couch, too cheap to feed (or, it seems, bury) his cat, but quite ready to disinherit his plucky naval-officer son; jealous, splenetic, and venal Abner Truckle, who'll pimp for his religious ninny of a wife if it'll get his name on Sly's will; and Sly's enterprising mistress Miss Fancy, a wizard of an opportunist.

Collecting loans and gifts by declaring he'll make each of these creeps his sole legatee, Sly amasses a chest of gold ("God with an "l"'), driving up the value of his death. When he's dragged into court for attempted rape (and here the jokes push the limit), he escapes because of a kind of thieves' honor: the other liars protect their own.

At this point Jonson exposes Volpone; lawyer Voltore turns on him. But Gelbart prefers a quieter resolution: Able wants to outfox his mentor, and Sly, wanting to watch his victims squirm one more time, stupidly provides him the perfect opportunity. But Sly hasn't run out of ruses. Nor has Gelbart.

If Bowen Park's staging has a flaw, it's that it's not quite as broad or swift as its cascading material. Nevertheless its chief virtue is its deep respect for the verbal humor that rockets through the dialogue.

Treating the title role with full reverence, Patrick Kerr methodically exposes Sly's wiles. (Kerr also plays, like a stuffed shirt from a Marx Brothers film, the judge who tries to smoke Sly out.) As Able, Sly's "bootscraper and bumwiper" (a much less subversive part than Jonson's), John Gibbons scurries about glad-handing and back-stabbing, but with a less contagious delight than we could want.

The whole rogues' gallery is rich, especially Hank Clark's Crouch, who's at death's door but still yearns to see others croak before him; Clark plays him with a geriatric wistfulness that would be endearing if the character weren't so repellent. Debrah Neal's Miss Fancy (a self-described "pleasure engineer") is a salacious wonder from Minsky's burlesque. And Heller has pompous fun in the role of the loudly valorous naval captain.

In a play crammed with hilarity, the best subtle humor comes from Tom Colvin's glacial court clerk, who always manages to be eight paragraphs behind the testimony. His slow but steady interjections provide delicious deadpan comments on the foolhardy action.

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