A CurtainUp Review
The Little Foxes
By Elyse Sommer
It would be nice to say that the story of those greedy southern foxes, The Hubbards of Lillian Hellman's 1939 play The Little Foxes had no relevance for 1997 audiences. These fictional turn of the century robber barons bear an all too close resemblance to the many family businesses turned mega-corporations ruled by greed. The only thing dated about the oldest Hubbard brother's Act 3 declaration that "there are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country" is the modesty of his estimate.
Perhaps if Lillian Hellman were alive and still writing plays, she would write about a modern Regina Giddens, whose struggle for wealth and freedom would be within a corporate boardroom, instead of within the confines of a society where a father considered only sons as legal heirs. As evident in the current revival at Lincoln Center, however, the 1900 time frame serves to emphasize the reality that evil flourishes and endures in a horse and buggy driven or turbo-powered society. Furthrmore, the fictional and real-life dramas we've become accustomed to seeing on TV have weakened critics who viewed Hellman's well-crafted play as overly melodramatic. Stockard Channing's Regina Giddens, and Jack O'Brien's direction also show that The Little Foxes is a play with enough nuances for a fresh interpretation which nevertheless sticks to the basic play without mammoth alterations.
What's different about Ms. Channing's Regina from the Reginas most often associated with Tallullah Bankhead on stage, (also Ann Baxter and Elizabeth Taylor), and Bette Davis on screen? Both Bankhead and Davis were over-the-top performers, whose malevolence bordered on camp. Ms. Channing is not quite as larger-than-life an actress. Oh, she's a villainess all right--as grasping as her brothers Ben (Brian Murray) and Oscar (Brian Kerwin) and her hateful nephew Leo (Frederick Weller)--but her insatiable avarice stems as much from the neediness of deprivation as the malevolence of the "bad seed." There are moments when you almost believe, that raised in a less dysfunctional environment the insatiable greed and malevolence might not have come out in its full force. The actress's performance in this much coveted role will please the large following of fans she's built up as one of the acting jewels in Lincoln Center's crown. On the other hand those bringing memories à la Bankhead and Taylor to this production will miss their more unquestioned, beyond-redemption villainy.
While I don't number myself as a card carrying Stockard Channing fan club member, I found her portrayal of Regina notable because it revealed how much of the playwright's own psyche is embodied in this character. (Note: The whole Hubbard family has its origins in Hellman's New Orleans clan, with the persona of Regina is based on her grandmother). While Hellman was not a beautiful woman, she always longed to be more attractive, a yearning which fed her enormous appetite for attention, fame and money. When her famous relationship with Dashiell Hammett failed to bring the kind of commitment she yearned for, she pragmatically chose to get what she could --which turned out to be his strong guiding hand in developing her first success The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes (described in fascinating detail in Joan Mellen's excellent dual biography Hellman and Hammett). Regina's pragmatism is dramatically evident in her willingness to sacrifice her relationship with her daughter and, ultimately, to commit a bloodless, weaponless murder. With this biography still fresh in my mind, along with Maureen Stapleton's comments that Hellman had told her she disliked both the Bankhead and Davis takes on her favorite character, (See our review of A Hell Of a Life), one can only speculate whether Hellman would have liked this slightly more human Regina better. As Stapleton tells it the playwright carefully guarded Foxes against bad acting by avoiding any major productions.
Fond as she was of fur coats and other trappings of the good life, Hellman would have loved John Lee Beatty's spectacular two-level set--to live in that is. While Beatty has followed the general layout of her stage directions, the home he has furnished hardly fits her instructions for "expensive but reflects no particular taste" which translates more into nouveau riche than this Architectural Digest worthy elegant interior. (A word of advice if you're buying tickets--avoid any seats on the far left which will have give you either a partially obscured or through-a-mirrored reflection view of the dining and music rooms).
The above notes from Maureen Stapleton takes us to the rest of this Foxes cast. Stapleton who has always excelled at playing losers was one of the best Birdies, (opposite Elizabeth Taylor's Regina), in the play's history. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Frances Conroy who brings no new strengths to the role, rousing more feelings of irritation than pity. Jennifer Dundas, the twenty-something actress who plays Alexandra was a much more impressive teenager in her last role (Good As New. With these two exceptions, the rest of the cast is fine, especially the versatile Brian Murray as the more charming and older of the Hubbard brothers. Even if his Alabama accent isn't 100% authentic he perfectly captures the slyness of this particular Southern un-gentleman. Kenneth Welsh is also very good as Regina's sick-at-heart and soul Southern Aristocrat husband Horace. Compared to the Hubbard clan he's still very much a good and gentle soul in a nest of vipers. However, his glee when he discovers Leo's shenanigans with his safety deposit box makes us also see him when he was younger and foxier and able to console himself with fancy women (much like the odious Leo)--in short, less of a saintly-good guy. The scene where all the good relatives (Horace, Alexandra, Birdie) and the faithful and knowing maid Addie (Ethel Ayer) are joined for a few Hubbard-free moments makes for a particularly affecting tableau, a very nice directorial touch. Ayer's Addie is very strong as befits her pivotal role of the involved observer. At one point in Act 3 she thoughtfully tells the ever-nostalgic Birdie" Well, there are people who eat the the earth and eat all the people on it, like in the Bible with the locusts. Then 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." This indictment of the Birdies and Horaces of this world as well as the Hubbards, serves as Alexandra's wake-up call at the end.
To sum up, the Hubbards have not lost their foxy cunning and fascination, nor Hellman's dialogue its incisiveness. You could do a lot worse than to spend an afternoon or evening in their company. And if you're cramped into box-like New York apartment or commuting to Lincoln Center from a humdrum suburban house, there's always that elegant Victorian set to make you salivate.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide