by Michael Bracken
A family that preys together…. never stops preying. At least not if the family in question is the clawingly, cloyingly, claustrophobically close-knit Hubbard clan of The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s paean to avarice thicker than blood, currently enjoying a thrilling revival (or two) at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under the expert direction of Daniel Sullivan.
This production makes eminently clear what a marvelous and durable piece of theater The Little Foxes is. Set in the deep South in 1900 and written in 1939, it wears its age like a badge of honor. As we watch its linear plot unfold and its crystalline characters shift allegiances with alacrity, we are acutely aware we’re watching theater of another era. Yet never does the word ‘dated’ even remotely come to mind.
Centered around a business opportunity for Regina Hubbard Giddens and her two brothers, The Little Foxes was never high art. But it most certainly was, is, and will continue to be high entertainment. And the Manhattan Theatre Club has hedged its bets by adding another bit of show business sleight of hand to the mix. The starring role of Regina, originated by Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway and played by Bette Davis on film, has been portioned out to two actresses, Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney. They alternate playing Regina, the most cunning of the foxes, with playing Regina’s sister-in-law, Birdie, a self-proclaimed ninny who’s not a fox at all.
Gimmicky? You bet – but it works.
Without minimizing the talents of the two leading ladies, credit for the success of the casting coup ultimately reflects back on playwright Hellman. Regina is an amazing character, single-mindedly motivated by her own self-interest and completely unapologetic about it. Hellman has written the character so clearly that there’s not much room for deviation. Nixon’s and Linney’s portrayals are remarkably similar, which is not to say either of them is doing it by the numbers. They both become Regina, and Regina is writ by Hellman loud and clear.
Linney’s portrayal is perhaps a tad subtler, which is not to say better or worse. Each actress has her own voice and mannerisms, to be sure, but they’re not what you remember when the curtain goes down. You remember Regina. Of course, both reflect director Sullivan’s concept of Regina, which reflects the playwright’s concept, which shines through two strong but not highly differentiated performances. If you’re looking for contrast, you’re better served watching each actress switch from steely Regina to sweet, hapless Birdie, a transformation each makes seamlessly.
The potential business venture that has the three Hubbard siblings jockeying for position involves partnering with a Northerner to build a cotton mill in the environs of the Giddens and Hubbard estates. It requires $75,000 from Regina and each of her two brothers, Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein).
While Ben and Oscar have their funding in place, Regina is dependent on her husband, Horace (Richard Thomas), away in Baltimore recovering from a serious illness. That doesn’t stop her from putting the squeeze on her brothers for an extra piece of the pie, since she knows how eager they are for the deal to happen. Nor does she hesitate to send her daughter, Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), to fetch Horace even though he’s too sick to travel.
Horace returns and it’s a pitched battle between him and Regina, with Regina’s brothers scurrying for cover with the help of Oscar’s dolt of a son, Leo, played with clueless humor by Michael Benz.
Even with his frail health, Thomas’s Horace is a worthy adversary to Regina, which is not to say he’s her equal. McKean has a certain underhanded charm as the older and more spirited of Regina’s brothers.
Scott Pask’s single set bespeaks the mindless materialism that pervades the Giddens and Hubbard families. And Daniel Sullivan’s direction brings it all together, with meticulous attention paid to detail for a very satisfying whole.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through Sunday, June 18th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com; http://littlefoxesbroadway.com/tickets/ 2 hours 30 minutes with two intermissions.