Comedy tonight: Rene Auberjonois and Rachel York in the revival of Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox.Photo: Carol Rosegg

From Ben Jonson’s Volpone, via Stefan Zweig’s modernization, to Larry Gelbart’s Americanization, we got the 1976 Sly Fox, in which George C. Scott confirmed his greatness. Arthur Penn, who cannily directs now, as then, keeps the two principals—the miser and con man Foxwell J. Sly, and his smooth young henchman Simon Able—realistic characters, while all others are caricatures.

This might just work if Richard Dreyfuss’s contemporary New Yorkish Sly were more gold-rush San Franciscan, and Eric Stoltz’s Able did not cavalierly throw away so many punch lines. As it is, the leads’ and supporting players’ inhabiting different worlds splits the play into unmatchable halves. And, as in the current Twentieth Century, the two stars are eclipsed by their planets. Sly, you will recall, pretends to be moribund and, with the help of his man Able, strings along the lawyer Craven, the geezer Crouch, and the notary Truckle in the hope of being named his sole heir, and the whore Miss Fancy his deathbed wife. Each keeps adding gold and money to Sly’s coffer, expecting his imminent demise. Greed and gullibility being greater constants than gold, the play ought not to date, least of all given Gelbart’s skill with comic situations and witty dialogue. And yet it feels not quite born-again.

Bronson Pinchot’s Craven, Rene Auberjonois’s Crouch, and Bob Dishy’s Truckle could not be funnier; Nick Wyman as the Captain, Peter Scolari as the unhinged Police Chief, Elizabeth Berkley as the pious innocent Mrs. Truckle, Rachel York as the Mae Westish Miss Fancy, and Professor Irwin Corey as the dodderingly befuddled Court Clerk are close on their heels—as is also Dreyfuss, in his second role as a corrupt judge. Yet when the center doesn’t hold, the periphery gets scattered. The elaborate 1976 décor (George Jenkins, re-created by Jesse Poleshuck), costumes (Albert Wolsky again), and lighting (Phil Monat) do nicely, and laughs still abound. But something is missing; could it be George C. Scott?

Political drama is a necessity, but our theater is starved of it, presumably because it is deemed unentertaining. An import, Copenhagen, proved otherwise; now our own Hannah & Martin laudably proposes to fill the gap. It is based on the published correspondence of the political scientist Hannah Arendt and the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger became a Nazi fellow traveler; the Jewish Arendt, his erstwhile student and mistress, an immigrant in America, where she published The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. After World War II, Martin was in the academic doghouse, with Hannah’s corroboration. Later, meeting him again, she changed her mind, exempting him from charges leveled at Nazis during the Nuremberg trials. He was eventually allowed to teach and publish again; she was twice married, the second time happily to another political scientist.

Kate Fodor, journalist and neophyte playwright, has done a commendable job dramatizing this relationship: faithful to the basic facts, but taking liberties for greater stageworthiness. What she has come up with is interesting; I only wish I could say spellbinding. For all her infusions of human interest, the piece about these two different Germans remains rather too talky. I am reminded of what Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about Rabindranath Tagore’s The King of the Dark Chamber: “The play has not really made a deep impression on me, although the great wisdom in it is manifest—or possibly just because of that. I was not moved… . It seems to me as if all that wisdom came out of the icebox.”

Wittgenstein later reversed himself about Tagore, as Hannah did about Martin. But first impressions may be right. The Epic Theatre Center production has a terrific Martin in David Strathairn, who, however, is not fully matched by Melissa Friedman, who looks like Hannah but lacks, as I remember her, the Arendt toughness and humor. Instead, there is a bewildered, hangdog expression usurping most of her performance. Something similarly monochrome characterizes Teri Lamm, as Hannah’s student and recalcitrant secretary. The others are worthy enough under Ron Russell’s earnest direction; nevertheless, there is, in both writing and production, a difference between doing good and doing well.

Looking at the living room and kitchen set, and the characters’ names in the program, you expect Daniel Goldfarb’s Sarah, Sarah to be another Jewish family sitcom. Nothing could be further from the truth: The play is a comedy-drama of the first order, as moving as it is funny, exploring remote corners within the familiar, thus managing to be both readily recognizable and totally new. Act One takes place in the middle-class Grosbergs’ Toronto apartment in 1961, where Sarah, the mother, disapproving of her son Artie’s fiancée, Rochelle, subjects the girl to intense, hostile questioning. Hovering, too, is Vincent, the family’s Polish-immigrant factotum, a burly fellow and bit of a cross-dresser, who, when told that his wife looks like Stalin, takes offense—on Stalin’s behalf. Vincent plays a crucial role in what evolves, which includes two major revelations and an endangerment of the engagement. All I can tell you is that—sovereignly acted as this is by J. Smith-Cameron, Richard Masur, Lori Prince, and Andrew Katz under Mark Nelson’s letter-perfect direction—if your eyes remain dry, there must be something wrong with your lachrymal glands.

Act Two, in 2001, takes place in a Chinese hotel room and at the Great Wall itself, but even telling you how it connects with Act One would be giving away too much. Here too is an expert blend of humor and pathos, giving the four actors a chance to play quite different roles with equal expertise. We have long known Smith-Cameron to be a very fine actress; this should crown her as a great one. Marvelous Masur adds new seriocomic laurels to his brow, and newcomer Prince is a revelation: Her Rochelle goes from comic to near-tragic in the shortest time, lifting our spirits even as she rends our hearts.

Barbara Cook’s Broadway, that splendid actress-singer or singer-actress’s solo act, is pure diamond solitaire, and should remain a treasure in the memory of those privileged to have witnessed it. Cook is 76 and overweight, but the instant she starts to sing (with her faithful arranger Wally Harper at the piano and Richard Sarpola on bass) or charmingly tell anecdotes between songs, she is the slender ingenue of yore. From a demure yet piquant face issues an angelic voice—sometimes dispensing with the handheld mike—and we are cradled in delight, empathy, laughter or tears, and something as close to bliss as we’ll ever know in the theater.

She sings standards as well as lesser-known songs from Broadway shows, often connected in an artful sequence, and always imbued with the kind of wisdom and know-how that come only from having sung, acted, and lived to the utmost, experienced everything and learned to convey it in a flow of notes, a concatenation of words, a mere trill or seemingly endlessly sustained high musical sigh. It is, by the clock, 90 minutes; by the ear and heart, a continuous moment of undiluted ecstasy.