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The Little Foxes
By Elyse Sommer
If ever a play seems ripe for a revival, it's certainly this saga of the rapacious Hubbards, Hellman's symbols of the merchant under class clawing its way up the social ladder after the Civil War to usurp the wealth and power of top bananas. The greedy and deceitful Hubbards can easily be seen as the forbears of the financial wizards whose reckless, self-serving practices have left not just the poor blacks of the Hubbard's small Alabama town behind , but workers and home owners all over America.
With its ever timely theme, The Little Foxes is Hellman's best known and most popular plays. Its numerous productions have included three on Broadway. Tthe 1939 premiere is best remembered for Tallulah Bankhead's Regina. The viper-in-chief was played by Elizabeth Taylor in 1981 and Stockard Channing in 1997. There was also a 1941 movie that starred Bette Davis. While these productions were helmed by the likes of Mike Nichols on stage and William Wyler in Hollywood, all surrounded the actors with lavishly detailed period costumes and sets, a grand staircase being something of a de rigueur scenic centerpiece for all.
But park your expectations of a comfortable, period appointed living room and that dramatic grand, curved stairway at the door of the New York Theatre Workshop. That's where Flemish director and cutting edge theater wunderkind Ivo Van Hove is once again imposing his own auteur-director's vision on that of the playwright's. Instead of sitting on chairs, the actors sit or lie on the floor or stand and stomp around a wide open prop-less stage.
As for the text, actually Van Hove is true to the script (even the reference to the levees being built in New Orleans is not a trendy insert to tie this into Katrina). But his way of overcoming the so-called tyranny of the text and foxily turning this from Hellman's into Van Hove's Little Foxes, is to put his own spin on the playwright's stage directions and to push his actors to play their characters so that their interactions and reactions are not just dysfunctional but dangerously demented. Violence is everywhere, most shockingly so when a scene in which the younger Hubbard brother, Oscar, slaps his alcoholic and aptly named wife Birdie turns into full-fledged criminal abuse.
So what does this latest VanHovian landscape look like? Despite the lack of convenional props, the director and production designer Jan Versweyveld, who was also aboard for Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire and More Stately Mansions. have created a very artfully designed production. Traditionalists, especially this play's many fans, might not like it. I suspect, if she were still with us, neither would the playwright whose penchant for luxury was epitomized by her famous outing as a mink coat model.
There IS a staircase, but it's straight up, without a railing and rather unimposingly tucked into a boxy center piece. It leads into a room where the actors not actively engaged in what's happening on the main playing area below are seen courtesy of Tal Yarden's video screen. The most striking of these second tier images are of Regina's husband Horace going through the phases of his illness and isolation from the rest of the family and the final image of young Alexandra Giddens' breaking free from the family's unsavory legacy (Optimists may interpret this as a portent of women able to lead more meaningful and independent lives).
The wide, barren space reflects the emotional lives of the characters. The walls being covered in dark purple cloth — a color associated with royalty — makes the production's palette a metaphor for the Hubbard's aspirations. The cloth covering may be used partly to prevent the walls from collapsing and to keep the actors, who often pound the walls in rage and frustration , from hurting themselves. Thibaud Delpeut's eerie sound design, especially during the various demented outbursts, enhances the overall physical eeriness.
Naturally, Van Hove's aggressive dismissal of traditional presentations of famous contemporary plays rests with the ability of the actors to buy into his vision. No problem with his lead since he's got his chief New York acting interpreter, Elizabeth Marvel, on hand to give us a powerful Regina. Marvel, more a downtown than a Broadway star, proved her affinity for VanHovianism in her famous nude bathtub scene in the controversial A Streetcar Named Desire; also as a somewhat bi-polar Hedda Gabler .
Like all the Hubbards Marvel wears black whether in a dinner party gown or a mini skirt. But good as Marvel is, the actress who is most moving and memorable is this production's lady in red, Tina Benko as Birdie Giddens, the impoverished Southern aristocrat Oscar married for her family's plantation. Her bright red attire is in direct contradiction to the black pit that is her marriage. Unlike Regina who deals with the inferior status to which women of her time are relegated by manipulating her husband, Birdie succumbs to her husband's verbal and physical abuse and uses drink to dealing with a husband she fears and a son she despise. The only bright note in Birdie's dismal life is her loving relationship with her niece Alexandra (Cristin Milioti).
As the nasty brothers, Marton Csokas and Thomas Jay Ryan are easy to dislike as the nasty brothers, Coskas as the oily head of the family, Ben, and Ryan as the ready-with-his fists Oscar. Nick Westrate's Leo is clearly a case of the apple not falling far from the rotten family tree.
It's hard to believe that Christopher Evan Welch, whose career I've been following since I first saw him in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at Williamstown in 1999 is old enough to play Horace Giddings, Regina's heartsick (physically as well as emotionally) banker husband. Interestingly, unlike the bankers who have been denounced as some of the chief villains of our current financial problems, the banker here is the moral counterpoint to the Hubbards' immorality. That said, the desperately ill Horace apparently has, during his healthier past, not suffered Regina's rejection without finding solace elsewhere.
Despite Horace's fragile clasp on life (Welch wheezes and struggles for breath most convincingly) his maneuvers to save his daughter from the influence of the Hubbards does reveal a certain ruthless aspect of his s own nature. That leaves it to the two servants, Addie and Cal (both Linda Gravatt and Creig Sargeant proving that small roles can make a big impact) to be the only characters to represent the virtues of loyalty of the underclass left behind by the likes of the ladder climbing Hubbards and subjected to the slings and arrows of their selfish ways.
Ultimately, whether done with grand interiors or in Van Hove's deconstructionist style, The Little Foxes is a melodramatic soap opera, but one I've always liked. It rises above its genre thanks to Hellman's incisive dialogue and the roles she's written that bring out the best in whoever plays them. Whether you're energized or enraged by this highly stylized production, you won't be bored.