New York City Theater
"The Little Foxes"
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. In an era of 90-minute, one-act plays, a two-and-a-half hour, three-act work is, with a few exceptions, a rarity or, rather, a throwback. So it is with Manhattan Theater Club’s stinging revival of Lillian Hellman’s brutal, bitter, pervasive “The Little Foxes.” First produced in 1939, the play starred a transcendent Tallulah Bankhead as the Machiavellian Regina Giddens, with Patricia Collinge as Birdie Hubbard, her benign sister-in-law.
For the latest revival, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate those two roles. Curious theatergoers might want to see both versions but, in this corner, the pairing of Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie is, hands-down, the one to see.
The scheming Regina is a member of the Hubbard family that lauds it over a small southern town at the turn of the last century. Wanting to invest in a new cotton mill, Regina and her two brothers, Ben and Oscar, agree to split their interest three ways, although Regina believes she and her husband Horace Giddens are entitled to a larger share since, without them, the deal is a bust.
The only trouble is, women did not have their own means then, so only Ben and Oscar can come up with the money. Regina has to rely on her husband who’s been away recovering from a heart ailment. His cash is tied up in the Union Pacific bonds that reside in his safety deposit box. How Regina plans to get her hands on the money after Horace returns home and refuses to go in on the deal is the play’s suspenseful arc.
Horace, his and Regina’s daughter Alexandra, Birdie and the Giddens’ two servants, Addie and Cal, are the only decent people. Birdie, whom the coarse Oscar married for her money, despises both her husband and their sniveling son, Leo.
The title is from the Bible’s Song of Solomon: “Take us, the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines.” Indeed, the Hubbards spoil what they touch yet survive and thrive while “lesser” folk suffer. Hellman is decrying not only a rapacious family but, by extension, capitalism itself. “Yeah, they got mighty well-off cheating nigras,” says Addie. “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it.”
As Regina, Linney is vulpine. She doesn’t sit on a lounge; she arranges herself to show her best angle. Everything is pretense: she finds the most vulnerable spots in people, flattering and charming them, getting what she wants. It’s a devastating portrait.
Nixon’s Birdie is heartbreaking. Her scene in which she relates her life with husband Oscar brings tears. As Regina, she’s more efficient than snake-like, whereas Linney’s Birdie lacks fragility. Nothing “wrong” with either actress in either role, but the evening is less forceful with Nixon as Regina.
The supporting cast is superb. Richard Thomas is extraordinary, giving his finest performance as Horace. Not namby-pamby, he’s fully aware of the family’s shenanigans and lashes out with a tongue of steel. Michael McKean is a sly Ben, Darren Goldstein a bullying Oscar, Michael Benz a dense Leo and Francesca Carpanini a feisty but sweet Alexandra.
As Addie and Cal, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner inject dignity into the servants. In his one scene, David Alford is sympathetic as Mr. Marshall, the Chicago investor, a symbol of the difference between the industrial, straightforward north and the so-called aristocratic, hypocritical south.
Director Daniel Sullivan doesn’t neglect the play’s inherent melodrama, yet succeeds in deepening characterizations, bringing out gradations beneath the surface. He gives the evening a throat-grabbing downward spiral. Along with Scott Pask’s scenery (the ceiling has cracks in it), Jane Greenwood’s gorgeous costumes and Justin Townsend’s subtle lighting, Sullivan reinforces Hellman’s attack on how standing around and watching the selfish trample the selfless is unacceptable.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 17, 2017