Now we call it racism, sexism and domestic abuse, but it’s just everyday life in “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play about a rapacious Southern family, which is being given an engrossing Broadway revival with a superb cast at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.
The production, finely directed by Daniel Sullivan, is getting the most attention because of a gimmick, but it’s a smart, appealing gimmick: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon take turns portraying either Regina or Birdie at alternate performances.
I saw it with Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie, which was the cast on opening night, and thus how the two will be considered by the Tony nominating committee – Linney for best actress in a leading role, Nixon in a supporting role. And they surely will be nominated. In any case, it is the casting I preferred to see, since both actresses can be said to be playing against type.
Click on these photographs by Joan Marcus of the “blue performances” (Laura Linney as Regina) to see them enlarged.
The malevolent heart of “The Little Foxes” belongs to Regina, a juicy role originated by the fabulous Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, and portrayed by the great Bette Davis in the 1941 film directed by William Wyler. Regina Hubbard Giddens is what you might call a piece of work – coquettish, crafty, manipulative, murderous. The daughter of a store owner who snubbed her and gave his entire inheritance to her two greedy brothers, Regina married Horace Giddens (Richard Thomas) in hopes that he could further her insatiable ambitions. But, though he is a kind-hearted and respectable banker, he has gravely disappointed her, so much so that she has not shared her bed with him for ten years.
As the play begins, it is 1900, Horace has been in a hospital in Baltimore for five months because of heart trouble, and Regina is scheming with her two brothers to land a deal with a Northern industrialist, Mr. Marshall, to build a cotton mill on their plantation. Regina and her brothers need Horace’s money to make the investment, but he has not replied to their letters. So Regina dispatches his young beloved daughter Alexandra to travel by herself to Baltimore to convince him to come home, indifferent to his feeble condition, wanting only his money.
Laura Linney, an 11-time Broadway veteran (Tony nominated for Time Stands Still) and accomplished screen actress (Oscar-nominated for Kinsey, You Can Count on Me, and The Savages), has in previous roles given off a flower child vibe (she played Mary Ann Singleton in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the Cities miniseries.) It makes her portrayal of Regina all the more impressive – at times calculatedly charming, at other times sarcastic or bitter or venomous, at all times hardened steel.
Cynthia Nixon, a 13-time Broadway veteran who made her Broadway debut at age 14 and won a Tony for Rabbit Hole ,is also an accomplished screen actress (Sex and the City.) In previous roles, her persona has been someone who knows her own mind, who can come off as bossy. Birdie, by contrast, is a delicate soul and music-lover, the one-time belle of an aristocratic family brought down and then bought out by the Hubbard family. She is married to Regina’s brother Oscar, who humiliates and abuses her, as does his brother Ben: “Twenty years ago,” Ben tells Mr. Marshall about Birdie’s family during the dinner party at the start of the play, “we took over their land, and their cotton, and their daughter.” Birdie has become an anxious and insecure drunk. It is to Nixon’s credit that she does not portray Birdie as a skittish woman, who talks too rapidly and too much (which is how I’ve seen other actresses depict the character.) Rather than the foolish woman her husband Oscar accuses her of being, Nixon’s Birdie is a woman with natural enthusiasms, and innate intelligence, who is constantly being beaten down. This makes her victimization all the more upsetting.
Having Linney and Nixon swap parts elevates Birdie in our consideration of the play – she is no longer just a minor character — and I think this makes sense for our era’s heightened sensitivity to women’s degradation. That she is so dismissed by the other characters is the very reason we should not do so ourselves.
Linney and Nixon wouldn’t shine so brightly without a supporting cast full of stand-out performances. Richard Thomas is exactly right as the goodly, dying Horace Giddens. Thomas made his Broadway debut at the age of eight, and has been in a dozen Broadway plays over the past 50 years, yet for a couple of generations he’s still best known as the aspiring writer John-Boy Walton in The Waltons, a saga of a family in Virginia that ran as a TV series in the 1970s and then as a series of TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. One can almost see his Horace as John-Boy grown old, with life turning out not the way he had hoped. Darren Goldstein, best-known for portraying jerks (Oscar Hodges in The Affair, Calhoun in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), here takes it up a few notches with Oscar Hubbard, a blunt, dull, vulgar man who has no discernible redeeming qualities – he even kills animals every day for sport, and then throws their bodies away, while the African-Americans in the area go hungry. Goldstein deserves credit for keeping such a character credible. So does Caroline Stefanie Clay, who portrays Addie, a character who is 180 degrees from Oscar — a kindly black servant who is a fount of wisdom and dignity. Michael McKean, like Thomas nearly enshrined for youthful roles (Laverne and Shirley, This is Spinal Tap), and last on Broadway as J. Edgar Hoover in All The Way, seems to get better and better as he ages. His Ben is a subtle knave, more articulate and intelligent than Oscar, but no less evil. (McKean is also terrific as the mentally ill older brother lawyer Chuck in Better Call Saul, the prequel TV series to Breaking Bad.)
After rhapsodizing about Tallulah Bankhead in the original Broadway production of “The Little Foxes,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in his review: “It is obviously unfair to discuss Miss Hellman’s new play as if it were a vehicle. Although in my opinion it does not have the general significance she intends, it is an unusually creditable example of the well-made play that is skillfully written and that communicates burning convictions.”
It’s true that Hellman didn’t do nuance. “The Little Foxes” might be admired more if the good characters weren’t quite so saintly and the bad characters so utterly evil. The playwright took the title from the Song of Solomon in the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” But she might as well have called it The Gentle and the Jackals.
But the play’s craftsmanship and its intensity have not diminished in this fifth, fierce, Broadway production (the last in 1997 with Stockard Channing as Regina), enhanced not just by the performances but by Scott Pask’s elegant set and the sumptuous costumes by Jane Greenwood. And I believe the changing times – and these particular times – have invested “The Little Foxes” with greater significance. The issues of race, class and gender that Hellman weaves into her play are far more at the forefront of our consciousness and concerns now. (One feels the impact of some seemingly throwaway lines, such as the brothers’ promise to force wages low and prevent any strikes in their mill, and Addie responding to Horace’s promise of leaving her some money: “Don’t you do that, Mr. Horace. A colored woman in a white man’s will! I’d never get it nohow.”) I’ve always been chilled and enthralled when Addie says “there are people who eat the earth” and “there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.” Hearing this now, it feels like a timely call to arms.
Click on these photographs by Joan Marcus of the “green performances” (Cynthia Nixon as Regina) to see them enlarged.
The Little Foxes
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Written by Lillian Hellman; Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design by Fitz Patton,
Cast Cynthia Nixon as Regina/Birdie, Laura Linney as Regina/Birdie, Darren Goldstein as Oscar Hubbard, Michael McKean as Ben Hubbard, Richard Thomas as Horace Giddens, David Alford as Mr. Marshall, Michael Benz as Leo Hubbard, Francesca Carpanini as Alexandra Giddens, Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal.
Running time: Two and a half hours, including two 10-minute intermissions
Tickets: $89 to $179
The Little Foxes has been extended to July 2, 2017.