The nasty, tasty snakepit that is Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes has been irresistible to actors and audiences since Tallulah Bankhead chewed the Southern scenery in the play’s 1939 Broadway premiere and Bette Davis did the same in the 1941 film. Many a star has pumped the bodice of queen bitch Regina Giddins – including no less a nova than Elizabeth Taylor, entirely credible in 1981. Regina will do whatever it takes to inherit the Alabama plantation that she and her greedy red-neck brothers have married into.
The Little Foxes is as political as it is black of heart, sharing with Chekhov a conflicted observation of the world moving on from a land-owning, debt-ridden gentry to the rising merchant class hell-bent on taking over.
Brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) Hubbard have assumed control of the Alabama cotton fields once owned by the family of Oscar’s fragile, alcoholic wife Birdie (Cynthia Nixon). They have negotiated with a Chicago businessman to build a cotton mill, but need cash to seal the deal. They conspire to have Birdie and Oscar’s loutish son Leo (Michael Benz), a bank teller, steal railroad bonds kept by Regina’s sickly husband Horace (Richard Thomas) in a safe deposit box. The Hubbards also want to marry Leo off to Regina and Horace’s lovely daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini). Not surprisingly, Birdie and Horace are appalled by the idea (Alexandra is none too happy with it, either).
The Manhattan Theatre Club production, staged with a rock solid hand by Daniel Sullivan at the Friedman Theatre, is flawless. Which is to say tastefully mean-spirited without any need to overemphasize what is emminently self-evident. Visually, it’s sumptuous, with a realistic set by Scott Pask, lovely costumes by Jane Greenwood and clear, unobtrusive lighting by Justin Townsend.
The casting, which includes confident performances by Carolie Stafanie Clay, Charles Turner and David Alford, couldn’t be better and there’s a gimmick to go with it all: Linney and Nixon alternate as Regina and Birdie, which may be reason enough to see the show twice. I saw it with the official opening night cast, as described above. (That means, not incidentally, that come time for Tony nominations, Linney will be considerd in the leading actress category, Nixon for featured actress.)
Linney is aptly viperish and moderates her performance so Regina’s evil nature builds precisely. Nixon is terribly moving as the sensitive Birdie, whose drinking increases in direct proportion to the blows administered by her husband.
The revelation of the production, however, is Thomas, who has continued to grow as a powerful presence on our stages and has never been better than he is here. Returning from months away at a sanitorium, Horace sees through the manipulations and plans, and vows to thwart them. In one of the theater’s great death scenes, Horace nearly succeeds before a dropped bottle of medication ends the effort. Frankly, no one dies better these days than Thomas (I’m thinking here of another death scene, more harrowing than this, that he played on The Americans.)
In all, a rich, satisfying deep-dive into miserableness and ill-will. Couldn’t be more fun.