An agronomist could diagram the strata of Sly Fox‘s comic soil: Over the classical bedrock of Jonson’s Volpone, as refracted through the quartzite of Stefan Zweig’s 1920s adaptation, gagmeister Larry Gelbart, in 1981, poured a healthfully loamy mix of burlesque and vaudeville shtick, out of which sprang the glorious giant sunflower of George C. Scott’s performance as the rapacious fake invalid who swindles the wealthy on the pretense of leaving their own donations back to them in his will.

If Sly Fox produces fewer such flowers of laughter these days, it’s proof of our ecological mismanagement: The topsoil of American comic playing has been considerably eroded by natural disasters like television, and Richard Dreyfuss’s modest, low-key Foxwell J. Sly offers no color or fragrance to match the blossoming of Scott’s vulturous glee. Director Arthur Penn tills the ground considerably slower than he used to, and though a hardy band of smallholders—Rene Auberjonois, Bob Dishy, and especially Bronson Pinchot—produce scattered buds of hilarity, the comedy farmer’s almanac predicts only mild amusement for the coming weeks.

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