While attending The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop,, an elderly woman behind me whispered to her companion, “She’s one of the biggest bitches of the theater!” about the lead character in Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drama. In the annals of stage history, few female characters are as evil incarnate at Regina Giddens. The play is a performer’s dream because of its savage dialogue. But although visceral in its physicality, this production of the modern American classic suffers from a lack of any hint of humanity that keeps the action and characters at arm’s length. The powerful performances, however, make the show worth seeing. In a 1939 review of the Broadway premiere, my favorite theater critic, Robert Benchley, called The Little Foxes “a sinister play about sinister people.” The story was based on Hellman’s own Southern family. Set in the spring of 1900, it concerns the psychological and financial warfare of the backstabbing Hubbards. They want to build a cotton mill on their plantation, with the play revolving around the machinations of sister Regina to gain a majority share in the new venture from her venomous brothers, Benjamin and Oscar. She wants to exact revenge for being left out of their father’s will, since only sons were considered legal heirs at that time. Although the siblings each display their own social-climbing ferocity, it is Regina who emerges as the queen bee of avarice.
When The Little Foxes first appeared, Regina was played by the larger-than-life Tallulah Bankhead. The 1941 film version — with a screenplay by Hellman — starred Bette Davis as one of the greatest villains of American cinema, according to the American Film Institute. Subsequent revivals featured Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor, and, most recently, Stockard Channing.
Acclaimed Flemish director and NYTW go-to guy Ivo van Hove of Toneelgroep Amsterdam once again teams with Obie Award-winning actress Elizabeth Marvel for this radical reworking. Their previous collaborations, Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire, were highly praised for their eye-opening new interpretations.
Van Hove strips down a play to its basic elements to get to the core of its meaning. The Little Foxes is stylistically staged. With a plush staircase in the center, the floor-to-ceiling purple-carpeted set has the decadent feel of a nightclub. There are the barest minimum of set pieces and props. No time or place is mentioned in the program in an effort to bring the action into the present day.
In this austere setting, the performances stand alone — and they are worthy of praise, although sometimes bordering on camp. Many times I couldn’t help but think of the cartoon villain who twirls his mustache in delight at the suffering of his victims. The cast alternates between moments of control and rage. Characters are dragged and punched, with hair pulled and faces flush with screaming.
Marvel as Regina has the haughty air of a Southern belle, with a genteel smile that turns on a dime into a viperish snarl. She is manipulative and malicious. New Zealander Marton Csokas (who appeared in The Lord of the Rings) is like a coiled snake as bad-boy bachelor Ben. Csokas plays up Ben’s attachment to his sister as somewhat sexual, which ups the ick factor in his already icky character.
Thomas Jay Ryan, recently of In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, is the violent family man Oscar, who physically and verbally abuses his wife and son. Nick Westrate (from this year’s revival of Boys in the Band) as Oscar’s offspring Leo shows that the apple never falls far from the tree. And Christopher Evan Welch (currently seen on AMC’s Rubicon) as Regina’s sickly husband Horace spends the last of his strength manhandling his wife, though his intentions are to end the Hubbard family reign of terror.
Even the supposedly innocent characters display hints of malevolence. Regina’s daughter Alexandra, as portrayed by Cristin Milioti (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and Oscar’s alcoholic wife Birdie, in a standout performance by Tina Benko (Restoration), are not above their own brands of bad behavior.
Which leads to my biggest concern with the play’s direction. Although The Little Foxes has more betrayal and double-crosses in its two hours than an entire season of Dallas, this production completely lacks a humanity that would allow the audience to relate to the characters and understand them beyond their insatiable desire for wealth. There seems to be nothing besides their greed.
Are we suppose to believe these despicable people are continuing a pattern thrust upon them by previous generations? If so, then why the ray of hope at the end as Xan escapes the house of horrors? Van Hove may have stripped the play to its core, but The Little Foxes remains a gripping and unnerving portrait of a family of fiends.