The Little Foxes
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 20, 2010
(Dear Gentle Scroller: I hate suspense, don't you? Especially in a theatre review. So I'm letting you know here that I don't actually discuss my immense enthusiasm for this production until around paragraph 4. If you're reading this in the interest of making a last-minute theatre-going decision, do not hesitate! Go down—or up?—to New York Theatre Workshop right now!)
The Little Foxes, written in 1939 and based on the playwright Lillian Hellman's maternal relatives, is meant to be a cautionary tale about a trio of avaricious siblings who ruthlessly dismember their family tree in the interest of a business venture that promises to be a financial windfall. It is undoubtedly—inevitably, in that it deals with money and those in its thrall—a political play. But unlike the work of her contemporaries Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, Hellman's play does not feel particularly comfortable with the class-conscious politics it espouses. In fact, The Little Foxes feels more like a valentine to Greed than a warning of its deleterious effects.
But what a thoroughly enjoyable quasi-Satanic melodrama it is! Taking place in 1900 in a small town in Alabama, the play focuses on the affluent Regina Hubbard Giddens who would like to be more affluent, but since her brothers inherited their father's fortune (as women were not legal heirs at that time), she is dependent upon the fiscally (and, worse, morally) sound financial whims of her husband Horace, who's currently bedridden in Baltimore (a.k.a. resting at Johns Hopkins for his severe heart condition). This would be fine if she didn't need $75,000 from him to go in with her brothers on a cotton-manufacturing factory that is sure to make them millionaires. So she sends her Electra-like daughter Alexandra to sweet-talk her shouldn't-be-up-and-at-'em father into returning home, whilst Regina's brothers secretly vote no-confidence in their sister's ploy and cook up an even more nefarious way of getting the money.
Currently playing at New York Theater Workshop is Belgian director Ivo van Hove's diabolical and deliciously claustrophobic take on this play with his frequent collaborators set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld and actress Elizabeth Marvel as Regina (a role previously inhabited by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, et al). I was thrilled by their versions of A Streetcar Named Desire (1999) and Hedda Gabler (2004) (both also at NYTW), and this production, from start to finish, is simply exhilarating.
Versweyveld's velvet-walled set is sparse and spooky, some hybrid of a coffin and a box of chocolates, but van Hove's clear-eyed approach is neither somber nor self-indulgent. In fact, Marvel and her exquisite castmates comport themselves (in Kevin Guyer's elegant evening wear) with an easy formality—and occasional athleticism—such that you barely notice the room has almost no furniture. Indeed, there is not one unnecessary element—in concept, design, or performance—on that stage.
And while the script is melodrama, the performances defy such classification. Marvel's Regina is cold-blooded—an amphibian reliant on the heat of her self-made promise of eventual boundless wealth in order to regulate her temperature. It's not that she's psychopathic, it's just that her desire for abundant riches completely occludes whatever empathy she may possess. Also worthy of mention is Tina Benko as Birdie, Regina's pretty wistfully-drunk sister-in-law, who at once hates her battering husband Oscar (an excellent Thomas Jay Ryan) and accepts each blow as though it were a dangerous piece of jewelry. As the servant Addie, Lynda Gravatt is seething, withering, and wise, and Nick Westrate's Leo, Oscar and Birdie's son, is truly chilling as a dashing dull-witted sadist-in-training.
In addition to being two straight hours of the kind of theatre during which you almost hate to blink, van Hove's production of The Little Foxes packs quite a moral punch. This is ultimately not a result of Hellman's juicy, self-righteous, but oddly flimsy judgments of her characters and those they represent. One of the plays most quoted lines is "there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it... and there are people who stand around and watch them eat it." Van Hove and Co. take this a bold step further: we are not just average people standing by, complicit merely by our inaction. We're seeing frightening fragments of our own reflection in the blade of a guillotine that is plummeting into some other monster's neck. We could so easily be them. We could be next.