Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Little Foxes


While the critics never placed Lillian Hellman in the first rank of American playwrights, her work, at least as exemplified by this 1939 family drama, has much to recommend it and is certainly worthy of an occasional revival. She surely knew how to write a tight plot and juicy roles that allow actors to show their mettle. Manhattan Theatre Club has assembled a first-rate cast for this production, led by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternate the roles of Regina and Birdie. This tale of an avaricious family greedy to progress from rich to filthy rich bears an extra frisson of timeliness today. We meet the Hubbard family in Alabama in 1900. Brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) are wooing a Chicago industrialist Mr. Marshall (David Alford) to build a cotton mill on their property. To keep the deal in the family, they need their sister Regina Giddens (Linney at my performance) to raise a third of the investment. Trouble is her husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who controls the pursestrings, is away in Baltimore convalescing from a heart condition and shows no inclination to return or even to respond to their increasingly frantic letters. Regina skillfully uses her leverage to win a better deal from her brothers and persuades her virtuous 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to go to Baltimore to fetch Horace. Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), the unsavory son of Oscar and Birdie, works in Horace’s bank and comes up with a shady plan that allows the brothers to proceed without Regina. When Horace returns, he discovers their plot and, unfortunately for him, reveals it to his wife. There is more scheming, a shocking scene between Horace and Regina and, surprisingly for its time, an ending in which evil is not punished, at least not explicitly. The role of Regina, catnip for such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis, suits Linney well; she captures both the steeliness and the traces of charm. However, she is almost overshadowed by Cynthia Nixon’s superb performance as her sister-in-law Birdie, a delicate wounded bird driven to drink by her husband’s abuse; her monologue in the final act is absolutely wrenching. Linney and Nixon are so persuasive in these roles that is hard to imagine them in reverse. Even the servants are well-cast — Charles Turner as the butler Cal and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie, the housekeeper whose eye rolls and facial expressions speak louder than words. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are marvelous. Scott Pask’s living room set is fine except that the staircase, focus of a crucial scene, looks strangely cramped. Daniel Sullivan directs with a sure hand. The play is far from subtle, but, with such a fine production,  it is very entertaining. Running time: two hours 25 minutes including two intermissions.

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