“These Foxes Can Still Bite”
The faces of two beautiful actresses, their lush, dark hair worn in the same swept-back fashion, grace the Playbill cover for the Manhattan Theatre Club’s riveting revival of The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s powerful psychological melodrama about a rapacious turn-of-the-century Southern family. At the upper left is Cynthia Nixon, her large, intelligent eyes piercingly searching, the hint of a smirk lifting the outer corners of her lips. At the lower right is Laura Linney, her sly smile suggesting pert impishness, like the cat that ate the mouse.
|Laura Linney as Regina, Cynthia Nixon as Birdie. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
|Cynthia Nixon as Regina, Laura Linney as Birdie. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Although most theatregoers will be able to see only one performance, those who view both will have the opportunity to compare performances, much as if this was the theatrical equivalent of a boxing match, perhaps suggested by having the stars’ portraits in opposite corners on the program cover. The night I went, Linney was Regina and Nixon was Birdie; both were magnificent.
It’s not uncommon in Japan’s kabuki for a classic drama to be produced with its two most famous roles produced with top stars alternating in them; it’s rare, though, on Broadway or the West End. Perhaps the most famous example is when Edwin Booth and Henry Irving alternated as Iago and Othello at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1881. A more recent instance, also in London, was the 2014 production of Frankenstein, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated as Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature; perhaps the idea is beginning to spread.
Ever since its 1939 premiere, starring Tallulah Bankhead as Regina and Patricia Collinge as Birdie, The Little Foxes has established a distinguished Broadway record (Lincoln Center included) with a series of star-studded revivals: 1967, Anne Bancroft as Regina and Margaret Leighton as Birdie, Mike Nichols directing; 1981, Elizabeth Taylor as Regina and Maureen Stapleton as Birdie, Austin Pendleton directing; and 1997, Stockard Channing as Regina and Frances Conroy as Birdie, Jack O’Brien directing. Bette Davis and Patricia Collinge starred in the 1941 film version, and Greer Garson and Eileen Heckart in TV’s 1956 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production. Much of this can be accessed via YouTube, God bless it, so it’s possible to compare Linney and Nixon not only with each other but, to a degree, with major actresses of the past.
The Little Foxes takes its title from an Old Testament verse suggested to Hellman by Dorothy Parker: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes.” Hellman’s story was loosely based on her own familial history; in 1946, she wrote a less-successful prequel, Another Part of the Forest, which it would be interesting to see revived.
|Richard Thomas, Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein, Michael Benz. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
All the action in the three-act play, which runs nearly two and a half hours, is at the gracious Alabama home (beautifully designed by Scott Pask and elegantly lit by Justin Townsend) of Regina and Horace, the latter suffering from a serious heart ailment. The play charts the efforts of Regina’s grasping brothers, Benjamin (Michael McKean) and Oscar, to finance a cotton mill that will make them millionaires while coldly exploiting the local workers, black and white. When she learns that Oscar and Birdie’s callow son, Leo (Michael Benz), with the connivance of his uncle and father, stole $88,000 from Horace’s safe deposit box, the even greedier Regina gains control of the investment.
This is one woman who isn’t going to let the patriarchal system hold her down, regardless of what steps she must take to achieve her will. She even manages to overcome the righteous Horace’s objections by sitting by cold-bloodedly, not giving him his medicine, when he has a fatal heart attack. Despite her monetary victory, Regina is crushed when the one person she loves, her 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), rejects her.
The only other sympathetic characters in this unpleasant parade of family venality are Birdie, representing the once-proud class trampled on by the ruthless Hubbards and their like, and the caring black servants, Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay) and Cal (Charles Turner).
The Little Foxes is an example of old-fashioned but still magnetic playwriting: a tightly constructed play with crystal-clear exposition (even when subjects like investments and percentages are discussed), sharply defined characters, a theatrically colorful time and place (Alabama in 1900), and a powerful, anticapitalistic theme, as resonant today as during the Depression, concerning unmitigated avarice and the mistreatment of the working classes.
The moral is made clear in Addie’s words: “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it. . . . And other people who stand around and watch them eat it. . . . Some-times I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”
One can sometimes hear the creaking of the dramatic wheels as Hellman slowly sets up her situations and their outcome; however, when given the kind of solidly believable performances such as it mostly gets here under Daniel Sullivan’s shrewd direction, The Little Foxes demonstrates why it remains such a theatrical humdinger, even with so distasteful a cast of characters.
Linney’s Regina, as good as it gets, captures all this vixen’s charm, craftiness, daring, viciousness, unscrupulousness, and razor-sharp ambition. Nixon makes Birdie a completely convincing counterpoint character; loquacious, sensitive, silly, and affectingly sincere, as when she expresses her sympathy for the animals her husband takes such pleasure in shooting every day. I suspect the same could be said of these actresses when their roles are flip-flopped.
Both stars wear brilliant costume designer Jane Greenwood’s period clothes with aplomb, the most breathtaking one being Regina’s black number, adorned by a yellow corsage, seen in the first act. Regina looks precisely like a Gibson girl come to life.
While no one in the company can be faulted, the performances of Richard Thomas as Horace and Michael McKean as Ben are particularly resonant. The former, who retains his boyish appeal beneath his beard and graying hair, is perfectly cast as the morally upright--when it suits him--banker; his explosive confrontations with Regina will blow you away, and his physical struggles during his seizures are powerfully realistic. McKean, usually so good at smarmy comic roles, is every inch the devious, scheming businessman, using his favorite aphorisms to add a layer of presumed good nature as a veneer to cover up the rot beneath.
Regardless of who you get to see as Regina and Birdie, you’ll be in the presence of two great American actresses performing a play that once again reveals not only its pertinence but its quality as a work of theatre. This is one skulk of foxes that still has its bite.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through June 18