13 May 2017

'The Little Foxes'

There are some plays that, when I read they’re on the boards somewhere in New York City, I seriously try to get to a performance.  Waiting for Godot’s like that; Jitney was; Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night are, too.  Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is definitely one of those must-see plays for me—so when I read that Manhattan Theatre Club was producing it on Broadway with two sterling actors, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, alternating in the two lead female roles of Regina Giddens and Birdie Hubbard, I knew I had to try to see it.  Hellman (1905-84) is one of the great  playwrights of the 20th century, one of the United States’ most accomplished women dramatists, and Little Foxes is generally considered her masterwork.

I’d seen a production of Little Foxes on Broadway before—with a rather illustrious cast.  It was back in July 1981 and it featured a very famous actress in her stage début: Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) played Regina Giddens.  The production was an experiment of sorts—not so much to see if movie-star Taylor could do a stage part, but to see if audiences would buy a production starring a movie actress (among a cast studded with other film and TV names, though ones with previous stage credits).  The producer, Zev Bufman, and Taylor were contemplating launching a repertory program of great plays on Broadway starring actors from the world of film, to be called the Elizabeth Theatre Group.  The Little Foxes played 126 regular performances and eight previews, completing its limited run (with an extension). 

(The rep program, however, flamed out.  Bufman and Taylor had plans for productions of Noël Coward’s Private Lives (starring Taylor and Richard Burton), Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green (with Cecily Tyson), Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (with Taylor), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, and even more challenging fare, including Shakespeare plays (with Taylor—and why not, if Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney could do it, albeit on film).  In 1983, Bufman presented the Coward and the Emlyn Williams, but the project went no further.  Dealing with movie and TV stars—not Taylor, by the way—turned out just to be too . . . ummm, “difficult.”)

The Little Foxes premièred on 15 February 1939 at the National Theatre (now the Niedlerlander), directed by Herman Shumlin, with Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Giddens, Frank Conroy as Horace Giddens, Charles Dingle as Benjamin Hubbard, Carl Benton Reid as Oscar Hubbard, Dan Duryea as Leo Hubbard, and Patricia Collinge as Birdie Hubbard.  The play ran for 410 performances and in 1941 was made into a film by Samuel Goldwyn Productions under William Wyler’s direction.  The cast was largely the 1939 Broadway company, with Bette Davis taking the role originated by Bankhead.  Productions followed across the country and abroad, but there were major revivals in New York City as well.

In 1967-68, the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center presented Little Foxes under the direction of Mike Nichols, with Anne Bancroft (Regina), Richard A. Dysart (Horace), Margaret Leighton (Birdie), E. G. Marshall (Oscar), Austin Pendleton (Leo), Beah Richards (Addie), George C. Scott (Benjamin), and Maria Tucci (Alexandra).  Then came that Bufman production with Taylor at the Martin Beck Theatre in 1981, directed by Austin Pendleton (who’d played young Leo Hubbard in ’67-’68), with Tom Aldredge (Horace), Joe Ponazecki (Oscar), Dennis Christopher (Leo), Maureen Stapleton (Birdie), Anthony Zerbe (Benjamin), and Joe Seneca (Cal).  A new resident company at Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Center Theater, revived the play in 1997 under the direction of Jack O'Brien, with Stockard Channing (Regina), Kenneth Welsh (Horace), Frances Conroy (Birdie), Jennifer Dundas, Brian Kerwin (Oscar), and Brian Murray (Benjamin).  In 2010, the New York Theatre Workshop brought avant-garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove in to helm a new staging. 

The Little Foxes was presented on the Philip Morris Playhouse (CBS radio) 10 October 1941.  The radio adaptation starred Tallulah Bankhead.  In 1949, the play was adapted by Marc Blitzstein as an opera entitled Regina.  It premièred at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway on 31 October 1949.  George Schaefer produced and directed Robert Hartung’s television adaptation of Little Foxes on 16 December 1956 for the Hallmark Hall of Fame on NBC.  The cast included Greer Garson as Regina, Franchot Tone as Horace, Sidney Blackmer as Benjamin, E. G. Marshall as Oscar, and Eileen Heckart as Birdie.

The MTC revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway started previews on 29 March and opened on 19 April.  Diana, my usual theater companion, and I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 3 May; the production is scheduled to close on 2 July (extended from an 18 June closing).  The production has garnered six Tony nominations, announced by the American Theatre Wing on 2 May for 2016-17: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance of an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play: Laura Linney (Regina), Best Performance of an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play: Richard Thomas (Horace), Best Performance of an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play: Cynthia Nixon (Birdie), Best Costume Design of a Play: Jane Greenwood, Best Direction of a Play: Daniel Sullivan.  (The 71st Annual Tony Awards ceremony will be held on 11 June.)  MTC’s Little Foxes has also received nominations for seven Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Play Revival; six Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Outstanding Revival of a Broadway Play; and three Drama League Awards, including Outstanding Revival of a Play. 

The idea to cast two actresses to switch roles was Linney’s, who’d already been signed to play Regina when she suggested to Sullivan “this crazy idea.  What if we asked another great actress, say Cynthia Nixon, and we rotated parts?”  Both Sullivan and Nixon—who, like Linney, had always wanted to play Regina—were excited by the notion.  The two actresses alternate every four performances of the eight in a week.  (The original idea was to switch off every two shows.  Sullivan extended the rehearsal period to give the cast time to get used to playing opposite two different Reginas and Birdies.)  In an article on the MTC production, theater writer Lonnie Firestone compared two actors swapping roles this way to an older, but now uncommon theater practice:

[It’s] a cousin of sorts to repertory theatre, in which an ensemble cast performs different plays on alternating nights.  Both offer an opportunity for actors to showcase their mastery of more than one part.  But sharing roles within one play adds another element—namely, it heightens the antipodal relationship between two focal characters. 

The theater invited journalists to see the show twice, once for each pairing, and many did—but most paying theatergoers will only see the play once (as Diana and I did), so we can only conjecture how much different the performance will be when the actresses switch roles.  Neither Linney nor Nixon thought there’d be an immense difference between the alternate portrayals.  “I think some things will be similar, just because the play is so well written,” said Linney back in mid-March.  Nixon responded, “They aren’t the roomiest characters.”  Of course, one of the beauties of live theater is that even when the same actor is playing the same role, every performance is different, and each actor’s performance affects every other actor’s performance.  It’s one of the most exciting aspects of doing theater as distinct from film and TV.  The tiniest changes have immediate repercussions, so switching actors has to have an effect—and many of the reviewers described the often subtle distinctions between Linney’s Regina and Birdie and Nixon’s portrayals of the same characters. 

None of the three artists had ever done this kind of performance before—and it is rare in high-profile productions, but it’s not unknown.  In a 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre in London’s West End’s (now the Noël Coward Theatre) John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternated as Romeo and Mercutio.  In a 1994 production of Sam Shepard’s True West at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternated the roles of the brothers Austin and Lee, and in 2000, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly repeated the casting stunt at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.  As recently as 2011, Danny Boyle directed an adaptation of Frankenstein by Nick Dear at London’s National Theatre in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated as Victor Frankenstein and his monster (sharing an Olivier Award for Best Actor that year).

The Little Foxes is an old-fashioned family melodrama—on steroids.  The title, reportedly suggested to Hellman by Dorothy Parker, comes from the Song of Solomon 2:15 in the King James version of the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”  The Hubbard siblings do a bang-up job of spoiling the vines and everything else.  As Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay), the Giddens’s maid (and a former slave), says: “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it. . . .   And other people who stand around and watch them eat it.” 

In 1900, brothers Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Benjamin Hubbard (Michael McKean) join forces with their sister, Regina Giddens (Laura Linney at the performance I saw) to raise money to establish a cotton mill in their small Alabama town (identified in Another Part of the Forest as Bowden, a fictional place) in partnership with Chicago industrialist William Marshall (David Alford).  The brother’s are counting on Regina, who as a woman had been left out of their father’s will and has no money of her own, to get her wealthy banker husband, Horace, to contribute a third of the capital.  Birdie Hubbard (Cynthia Nixon on that Friday evening), Oscar’s gentle and sensitive wife, considered Southern aristocracy by the parvenu Hubbards, doesn’t approve of the Hubbard greed and urges Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini in her Broadway debut), Regina’s 17-year-old daughter, to escape the avaricious plotting of the family—and to avoid the plan to marry her to her cousin, Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), Oscar and Birdie’s 20-year-old son.  Horace Giddens (Richard Thomas) is under treatment for a heart ailment in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. 

After Regina’s and the Hubbards’ letters to Horace fail to bring the necessary money, Regina sends Alexandra to bring her father home on the train.  Weakened by the trip, Horace, about 45, denies the money his wife wishes.  Leo, a feckless and ineffectual boy who works for his Uncle Horace, steals Union Pacific Railroad bonds worth $88,000 ($2.4 million today) belonging to Horace and gives them to his father and Benjamin; the brothers cut Regina out of her share of the scheme.  Horace soon discovers the theft and when he tells his wife the stolen bonds will be her inheritance from him, she becomes enraged.  The revelation of Regina’s true character causes Horace to suffer a heart attack; Regina withholds the medicine necessary to save his life, and watches as Horace dies.  Regina confronts Oscar, Benjamin, and Leo with the theft of the securities, demanding 75 percent of Hubbard Sons and Marshall, Cotton Mills, in return for not exposing their crime.  In the last scene, Alexandra bids her mother goodbye, unable to bear any longer the greed and selfishness of the family.  The MTC production runs two hours and 35 minutes, including two intermissions. 

(In 1946, Hellman wrote a prequel to Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, whose Broadway début the playwright herself directed.  The nouveau-riche Hubbard family is shown here in 1880 and patriarch Marcus Hubbard, 63, dominates his conniving son, Benjamin, 35, and his weaker son, Oscar, in his late 20’s, with the tyranny that’s made him a rich and powerful man in the small cotton town of Bowden, Alabama, and surrounding Rose County.  He’s reduced his sensitive and religious wife, Lavinia, around 60, to a neurasthenic.  Only his beautiful, 20-year-old daughter, Regina—played by Patricia Neal in her first Broadway outing, winning both a Tony and a Theatre World Award—whom he worships, can control Marcus, which she does for her own selfish purposes.  She wants to marry John Bagtry, a 36-year-old Confederate army veteran, who only felt useful during the war and longs to go to Brazil to join the forces of the military, conservatives, and landowners fighting to preserve slavery there. 

(The Bagtrys have become land-poor, and John’s cousin, Birdie, 20, has appealed to Benjamin for a loan which would salvage Lionnet, the family’s cotton plantation.  He arranges the loan to benefit his family’s business and himself, but when Regina learns the money would make it possible for John to go to Brazil, she thwarts the transaction.  Oscar brings Laurette, about 20, the local prostitute with whom he’s become enthralled, to the Hubbard house for one of Marcus’s musical evenings; Benjamin purposely gets her drunk and she creates a scene.  Marcus orders both sons to leave home, but when Benjamin learns from his mother that his father’s fortune was made from profiteering off his fellow Southerners and an act of deceit and treachery during the Civil War, he blackmails Marcus into giving him control of the family funds.  Now Benjamin becomes the new tyrant of the family, forcing Oscar to marry Birdie and Regina to give up John.  Regina turns her attentions to Benjamin, even though she hates him, to further her own desires.  Just as he’d destroyed others, Marcus is a broken and lonely man at the end of the play, the victim of his own greed.)

MTC’s promo for The Little Foxes says “the play has a surprisingly timely resonance with important issues facing our country today.”  There are, of course, issues of race and gender that sadly have a contemporary ring: the casual racism with which Cal (Charles Turner) and Addie, the black servants, are treated—though Hellman portrays them with both great dignity and independent spirit.  (In Another Part of the Forest, Hellman informs us that Oscar rides with a group of nightriders and that the Hubbards have clashed with the local Ku Klux Klan.)  But for Hellman, a communist and anti-capitalist who was haled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), it’s the depiction of American business that’s most pointed.  As Nixon puts it:

One of the things that the play says is that—and this is very in evidence nowadays—we think of people who amass huge fortunes as just being “good at business.”  But what that phrase sometimes conceals is that there’s a lot of cutthroat maneuvering in many different kinds of businesses for people who want to get ahead.  And there are many different kinds of bending of rules—cheating and violence and backstabbing and more.  A lot of the fortunes that were amassed in this country have that at their base.  This is something that the African-American community has been saying for a long time.  There is so much corporate malfeasance and these people almost never go to jail.  There are these two parallel worlds at the bottom and the top of criminal behavior; one group gets heavily prosecuted and one barely even gets perused.

I can guess whom the actress had in mind.  (If I’m right, I have the same thought.  How about you all?)  The same association arises when Linney addresses a question about whether she thinks the Hubbards are “evil”:

We see this behavior now a lot.  It’s not rare.  I think people will recognize a lot of people they know in the Hubbards.  I don’t think it’s that hidden anymore.  That behavior used to be a little hidden because it was seen as in bad taste and people had a reputation, and now people don’t care.  Now there’s strength in behaving badly.  So there’s a different perspective that America is in now.  It’s also sort of a warning—it’s a play of warning, I feel.

Near the end of the play, Benjamin tells Regina that “throughout the country there are hundreds of Hubbards,” and “they will own this country some day.”  Several reviewers reported a shudder rippling though the audience at those lines, and, indeed, that day may have come.

The Little Foxes Diana and I saw is absolutely excellent!  First of all, I sort of like all those old-fashioned plays, especially by writers like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Hellman, Clifford Odets, and William Inge—top-flight craftspeople.  Second, companies like MTC, Signature, Primary Stages, Second Stage, the Public, Lincoln Center Theater, and others, do such good work on their productions—especially (but not limited to) their casting—that it’s a joy to watch the work that’s been done—design, directing, acting, the whole nine yards!  Third, perhaps to repeat myself, the acting is terrific, especially (but again, not limited to) Nixon and Linney.  Even though I know the situation and circumstances are contrived, the actors make it look so natural that I’m convinced it is.  While Sunset Boulevard was not worth the ticket price, Little Foxes is, and then some.  What a great evening!

This is easily one of the strongest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, up there with the Jitney company last winter (see my report on 24 February) but not many others.  Still, the roles of Regina and Benjamin are the movers and shakers of the story, followed closely by Horace (who doesn’t appear until the middle of act two).  Linney’s Regina is focused like the proverbial laser beam on her goal—getting out of her house, the little southern town, the marriage she hates and resents, and getting to the wide world represented by Chicago.  To do that, she needs money of her own.  That she fails to achieve this aim doesn’t diminish Linney’s steely resolve to get there—it only makes her ending more devastating—and more deserved.  Because Linney’s usually a softer actress, more emotionally vulnerable, playing the resolute, unbending Regina makes the performance both more surprising and more edgy.

Conversely, Nixon, who usually plays stronger, less pliable characters, gives a more precarious performance as the brow-beaten and dismissed Birdie.  We get to glimpse what she might have been had she not married Oscar and come under the sway (in Another Part of the Forest) of his father, a nastier bully than even Benjamin.  Nixon’s Birdie pulls some of this back out again when she takes her niece aside and warns her to get out from under the Hubbard curse—and acknowledges that she doesn’t really like her own son.  That’s probably the last anyone will ever see of that entombed spirit, but Nixon’s portrayal will pull your heartstrings to the breaking point.  As Benjamin, Michael McKean gives a frighteningly believable portrait of a ruthless, soulless, conscience-less money-chaser.  Winning is all that matters, or indeed means anything; there’s nothing left to him but greed for its own sake.  It sounds one-dimensional, but in McKean’s hands, it has shades and variations—all in pursuit of one goal: to beat the other guy (or, in the case of his sister, gal—Benjamin is an equal-opportunity predator).  Richard Thomas almost makes Horace likeable—or maybe it’s just his contrast with Regina and her brothers.  It’s certainly partly a product of Thomas’s stage persona—Diana and I saw the same quality in the actor’s portrayal of von Berg, the Austrian aristocrat in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy (see my report on 16 December 2015)—but there’s still a bright streak of cruelty and meanness in Thomas’s banker.  If the Hubbards are the bulls of this menagerie, Horace is the snake.  Thomas may seem like a harmless garter—but he turns out to be a viper.

The other members of the ensemble, from Darren Goldstein’s Oscar and Michael Benz’s Broadway début as Leo to David Alford’s Yankee industrialist, William Marshall (another Broadway début), display nuances and personality gradations that individualize each of them and together they provide the matrix in which the Hubbard fungus grows.  Some are abettors and others inhibiters, but they all contribute to the agar.  What they grow together is reprehensible—but the process is miraculous to see.

Scott Pask’s faded elegance of the Giddens’s parlor perfectly fits the tone of the play and Sullivan’s production.  I could almost smell the must hanging in the air of the house, aided by Justin Townsend’s soft lighting that evokes the spring evening in the deep south.  Nothing, however, could render the material and chronological atmosphere of Hellman’s play better than the costumes devised by Jane Greenwood.  It’s no wonder that she was singled out from the design team of Little Foxes for Tony recognition: the clothes for the production are as telling—of character and status—as any of Hellman’s dialogue or the behavior of any of the actors.  The difference between Regina and Birdie?  Look at what they wear.  The kind of men Benjamin and Oscar are?  Their clothes may not make the men—but they damn sure reveal them.

Daniel Sullivan’s staging is so realistic that I might have thought the actors were improvising if I didn’t know better.  But more than that, he guided the cast to performances that perfectly reveal who these folks are, what they want, and how they see themselves.  As directed by Sullivan, The Little Foxes is just an extremely well-mounted production of a well-written modern classic that hits all the bases.  Acting students, directing students, and theater students all should be assigned to see it! 

All the award nominations for Little Foxes are deserved and the nominees are legitimate contenders for the awards.  This is not a case of needing to fill out a bracket or not having enough competition in a category (as a few reviewers claimed in the case of Glenn Close’s 1995 Sunset Boulevard Tony), or a sop to a vet or a “critics’ darling” (to invoke William Goldman’s The Season again as I did in my Sunset Boulevard report).  This production earned its nominations.  Day-um!  (I haven’t been this high on a performance since I can’t remember when.  It’s exhilarating.)  Kudos!!

On Show-Score, based on a survey of 56 published reviews, The Little Foxes received an average rating of 85.  The website included in its tally several out-of-town outlets, which I usually discount, so I’ve recalculated Show-Score’s numbers for 53 local or national reviews:  the adjusted average is 81; the notices are 98% positive, 2% mixed, and none negative.  The highest scores are three 95’s (including one for Variety), with 18 90’s (including the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Hollywood Reporter); the low score is 60, backed by three 70’s (New York, Talkin’ Broadway, and NJ.com/Newark Star-Ledger).  I’ll be surveying 26 notices for my review round-up.

The New York Times’ Alexis Soloski, calling MTC’s Little Foxes a “nimble, exhilarating revival,” wondered “Is the play too tidy, too well made, too clear-cut in its morality to fight for a place in the first rank of American theater?”  Soloski continued, however: “Maybe. But it comes pretty close.  And very well armed.”  The Times review-writer reported, “Mr. Sullivan’s confident production doesn’t deny melodrama, but it prefers psychological and social detail over Southern gothic fripperies.”  In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz dubbed the production a “crisp and taut revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 acidic and darkly humorous Southern potboiler.”  Dziemianowicz assured readers, “Under Daniel Sullivan’s sure-handed direction, the show satisfies no matter who’s playing Regina,” adding that the “production's good-looking.” 

The Little Foxes’ “lessons are none too subtle,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Edward Rothstein, describing the play as a “melodramatic classic.”  Noting that Linney and Nixon are “two accomplished actresses,” Rothstein reported, “Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, the rest of the cast is remarkable (and flexible).”  Characterizing the play as a “costume melodrama” in a “zesty Broadway revival,” Matt Windman asserted in am New York, “Although ‘The Little Foxes’ calls attention to a lot of serious issues (including economic inequality, corporate greed, spousal abuse, racial prejudice and alcoholism), at heart, it is an unapologetic soap opera with over-the-top characters and unbelievable machinations.”  Windman felt, “Director Daniel Sullivan approaches the play with a “let’s just roll with it and have a good time” attitude, leading to a simple but effective production full of old-fashioned theatricality.”  While the amNY reviewer found that Linney and Nixon were “fine” in both roles, he affirmed, “The fullest performance actually comes from Thomas.” 

In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Strong revival, delicious alternate casting.”  She opened her review with the declaration, “The next time anyone challenges the need to have nonprofit Broadway houses alongside the commercial theaters, I’m going to shout out, ‘The Little Foxes.’”  Winer characterized the revival as “strongly cast” and said that Sullivan approached “what is generally dismissed these days as a melodramatic old potboiler” with “crackling seriousness.”  After seeing more plays about Hellman than productions of her work over the last 20 years, Winer “was struck by the snappy, tight writing and the psychological truth in the people who gather in the Giddens’ parlor (beautifully designed by Scott Pask) to manipulate life, death and money.”  Calling Linney and Nixon “sublimely intelligent actors,” the Newsday review-writer added, “The rest of the cast is far more than background, especially the ever-challenging Richard Thomas as Regina’s decent, dying husband and Michael McKean as the smoothest of the mean relatives.” 

For the Newark Star-Ledger, Christopher Kelly called The Little Foxes “a ripe melodrama” presented in an “effective, but straight-over-the-plate production.”  (One of the few reviewers to disparage the double-casting gimmick, which he observed “tends to be a lot more interesting to actors and theater insiders than to audience members,” Kelly stated, “One pretty good version of one pretty good play seems like more than enough.”)  Like Diana and me, the Star-Ledger writer saw Linney as Regina (he didn’t go back for the other pairing), and he found, “For the most part, Linney resists the high-camp dudgeon that Davis brought to the movie, opting for a more psychologically grounded Regina.”  Kelly’s caveat, however, was: “But while that’s a laudable choice, it also drains the proceedings of some potential electricity—a matter compounded by Sullivan’s steady, but restrained pacing.”  In the end, while he found the set and costumes “predictably handsome,” the production “never quite gets the pulse racing.”  In the Record of New Jersey’s suburban Bergen County, Joseph Cervelli labeled the play “venomously delicious” which is “being royally revived” by  MTC.  Praising Sullivan’s “expert” direction, Cavelli affirmed, “There is not one false move or miscalculations in this revival which is one of the highlights of the season.”

Tara Isabella Burton of the Village Voice dubbed the play “sumptuously sour” and the MTC revival “brilliant.”  Burton wrote that “the production invests us as much in the pain and suffering behind the mask-stiff moral carnivores as it does in the victimhood—or, more often, Hellman suggests, cowardly paralysis—of those they’re chomping on.”  According to the Voice reviewer, director “Sullivan’s genius is not to contort the play into a funnel for banal message-making, but to let a team of virtuosic actors loose onstage and let them battle as viciously for our sympathies as they fight one another.”  In summation, Burton asserted, “It would be easy to reduce The Little Foxes to a good play about terrible people.  Nobody gets off scot-free in Hellman’s script, or Sullivan’s staging,” she pointed out.  “But in the constant dynamic juggling of our sympathies, The Little Foxes is something so much better—and so much more affecting: It’s a fantastic play about flawed human beings.  Spoil the grapes the foxes may, but we want to watch them do it.”

In New York magazine, Jesse Green called Little Foxes a “breakneck melodrama” that’s “busily slapping down shibboleths and exposing hypocrisies” in a “handsome” but only “good-enough revival.  In Green’s words, “The play isn’t subtle; it’s just delicious.”  He felt that “the acting opportunities are juicy from top to bottom,” the man from New York found, “It’s largely in the calibration of the men’s roles that the production falters.”  He argued with the casting of the “aggressively likeable” Thomas and thought that “under Sullivan’s somewhat grandstanding direction,” McKean’s and Goldstein’s “pacing and affect suggest something too close to comedy.”  What the production “gets right,” Green felt, and is “powerfully effective, . . . is Hellman’s dissection of (and shocking prescience about) the way a systemic lack of power can turn into manipulative fury.”  But the final notion that the Hubbards of the world will take over the country is “a swift kick in the American grits, and worth the price of admission, whichever Regina is proving him right.”  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer described the play as possessing “a Greek tragedy’s implacability and the taut plotting of a film noir” and the MTC revival is “traditional in every respect but one”—the casting gimmick.  Each actress “brings very different shadings to Regina” and the anonymous writer recommends seeing both pairings.  “Hellman’s incisive storytelling, her razor-etched insights into women’s limited options in a patriarchal society, are largely good enough to withstand the scrutiny.”

David Cote of Time Out New York called Little Foxes a “potboiler” directed “with a crisp vigor that smooths over its melodramatic bumps.”  The man from TONY deemed, “The cast is uniformly strong, and outstanding work comes from the leading ladies.”  Though it “may not command as high a prospect in the pantheon of American drama as more poetic work by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill, . . . it’s cunningly built and packs a punch.”  Cote noted that he hadn’t been able to see both the two actresses in both roles, but admitted, “This is such a richly satisfying revival, I’m going back for seconds.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio described the play as a “brilliant, blistering indictment of a rapacious southern family in post-Civil War America” on which Sullivan “has done brilliant work.”  Stasio continued: “His casting is flawless, his team of designers couldn’t be better chosen, and the technical detail that has gone into the production is amazing.” 

David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter was “A class act X 2” and the HR reviewer noted, “Daniel Sullivan's impeccable production for Manhattan Theatre Club never overstates that modern-day relevance; he simply lets the play's rock-solid construction and lucid themes speak for themselves via a first-rate cast and exemplary design team.”  Because the play wears its message on its sleeve, perceived Rooney, it doesn’t bear “stripped-down surgical re-examination” of the kind wielded by Ivo van Hove (who staged the recent NYTW revival) or Sam Gold, but “served straight, with the right actors, it's a crackling good yarn.”  In addition to his analysis to the various strengths and surprises of the double casting of Nixon and Linney, Rooney asserted, “This is a superbly cast production with incisive character work” from the supporting actors.  “This is a production as classy as it is smart,” declared Hollywood journalist, “shining a spotlight on a playwright who . . . is too seldom revived on Broadway.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Isabella Biedenharn declared, “It’s . . . a treat to watch these masters [Nixon and Linney] at play” in the MTC Little Foxes, “along with the rest of the vibrant cast.”  Scott Pask’s set “is a sight to behold” with “Justin Townsend’s disconcertingly naturalistic lighting.”

Michael Dale called Little Foxes a “backstabbing family drama” on Broadway World and Sullivan’s staging a “classically mounted revival, designed with stately beauty.”  With compliments for all the cast, Dale commented on the double casting, saying that “personal taste” will determine which pairing “audience members prefer.”  He concluded, “Fortunately, The Little Foxes is a fascinating play and Sullivan's superb production is easily worth a second visit.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart declared, “Under the scrupulous direction of Daniel Sullivan, Linney and Nixon prove that there is more than one way to skin a fox, with two highly contrasting interpretations that change the way we look at the play.”  Stewart, however, felt, “The Little Foxes is guilty of romanticizing the slaveholding gentry of yore in its condemnation of the greedy bourgeoisie that has taken its place.”  Still, he acknowledged, “at least this revival points out the absurdity of that contention.”  Stewart wondered in the end, “[A]re the Hubbards really worse than the self-styled lords and ladies of Dixie?  Why is inherited wealth somehow purer than wealth attained by scratching and clawing like little foxes around a vineyard in bloom?  Those questions remain with us, no matter who is playing what role in this must-see revival.”

On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell labeled the MTC revival of Little Foxes “engrossing” and even deemed the double casting of Nixon and Linney “ a smart, appealing gimmick.”  Linney and Nixon “shine . . . brightly” at the head of “a supporting cast full of stand-out performances” in this “fierce” production enhanced by the “elegant set and the sumptuous costumes.”  Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway asserted that “the guiding force behind Daniel Sullivan’s . . . production of The Little Foxes” is: “Certain distances may seem large, but can in fact be very small: between wealth and poverty, for example, or between importance and meaninglessness, or between being somebody and being nobody.”  Director Sullivan “pays careful attention to mores and appearances with his staging,” but “the physical production lacks that dedication to detail.”  Murray praised, especially, Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie—he was less pleased with the alternate combination—and affirmed, “The other actors are no less than satisfying.”  Though the TB reviewer found “Sullivan’s spin might be on the weighty side; . . . the action is definitely more slow burn than all-consuming crackle,” he concluded, “Either way, this is a fiery play that’s a definite hot spot for the season.”

Declaring Manhattan Theatre Club’s Little Foxes a “riveting revival of” Hellman’s “powerful psychological melodrama” on Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter described the play as “an example of old-fashioned but still magnetic playwriting: a tightly constructed play with crystal-clear exposition . . ., sharply defined characters, a theatrically colorful time and place . . ., and a powerful, anticapitalistic theme, as resonant today as during the Depression.”  Leiter cautioned, “One can sometimes hear the creaking of the dramatic wheels,” but found that the production is “a theatrical humdinger” nonetheless “when given the kind of solidly believable performances such as it mostly gets here under Daniel Sullivan’s shrewd direction.”  He found no fault with any of the cast, but singled out Thomas and McKean for special praise, concluding, “This is one skulk of foxes that still has its bite.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Michael Bracken dubbed the play a “paean to avarice thicker than blood” and labeled the production “a thrilling revival . . . under the expert direction of Daniel Sullivan.”  He called the alternating casting “Gimmicky,” adding “but it works.”  Bracken concluded that “Daniel Sullivan’s direction brings it all together, with meticulous attention paid to detail for a very satisfying whole.”

Elyse Sommer characterized Little Foxes as “an old-fashioned, smartly scripted and structured melodrama” and an “uber-dysfunctional family drama” on CurtainUp.  Sommer affirmed that “Daniel Sullivan has assembled a fine group of actors” and that “Scott Pask’s opulent set is . . . something of a character in its own right.”  On Stage Buddy, Emily Gawlak characterized Little Foxes as “a play that marries the stylized drama of southern gothic with the wit of a comedy-of-manners.”  She asserted that “it’s easy to sink into the play, which, though two and a half hours long, passes swiftly over sharp dialogue and growing intrigue” and that director Sullivan “commands a fluid ensemble performance, stretching great drama out of heated arguments and pregnant pauses alike.”  Gawlak complained, however, that “it feels like a stretch to call show timely.  On the contrary, it feels a bit antiquated.”  Our stage buddy summed up with: “In 2017, The Little Foxes feels a little bit like elderberry wine and tea cakes in the afternoon—a superfluous indulgence, but an intoxicating, transportive treat, nonetheless.” 

New York Theatre Guide’s Tulis McCall dubbed the MTC revival a “delicious production” in which “intrigue is presented like so many layers of a French pastry.”  Director Sullivan had staged the production “with style and precision” resulting in “a crisp evening of deceit and calculation.”  The cast is a company of “very fine” actors, and the “result is an ensemble that is having a devilishly good time.”   The NYTG reviewer reported, “Everyone is up to something, and you don’t want to take your eyes off any of them for a second,” concluding that there are “more than a few reasons to catch this show.”  On Broadway News, a new site I’m adding because the reviewer is a familiar name whose voice has been absent from the critical scene for some months, Christopher Isherwood (late of the New York Times) called the MTC production of Little Foxes a “succulent new Broadway revival” that “cannot erase its tints of both moralizing and melodrama.”  He added, though, that “it proves once again that Hellman’s 1939 drama is also redoubtably enduring entertainment, a theatrically effective indictment of human greed and its destructive power.”  With the double casting, Isherwood asserted, “both actors give rewarding performances in both roles,” and furthermore, “Sullivan’s production has been cast in such depth that even the formidable leading ladies, each worth watching in pretty much anything, are by no means the whole show.”  This “crackerjack production shines with professional polish and acting of sharp intelligence and theatrical acuity.”  The Broadway Newsman observed that Little Foxes “probably does not rank among the greatest of American plays.  But with its vivid portrait of a family trampling all over good manners and upright morals in order to maximize their, er, net worth, it might be seen as a play peculiarly suited to the current national moment.”  (I wonder whom he’s thinking about . . . .) 

On WNYC radio, Jennifer Vanasco pronounced Daniel Sullivan’s production of Little Foxes “thrilling” and said she was “struck . . . hardest [by] how rounded these characters are.”  Vanasco characterized the Little Foxes as “a compelling play about power and its abuses” and concluded, “This is one you shouldn’t miss.”  Robert Kahn and Dave Quinn of WNBC, the television network outlet in New York City, labeled the MTC revival as a “powerful and chilling interpretation” of Hellman’s “Southern family drama” in “Sullivan’s exciting staging.”  The reviewers felt, “Both [actresses] prove to be equally effective in either role—a sign of each actress’ talent and the production’s overall perfection.”  They reserved praise, too, for the rest of the ensemble.  (I usually include the cable news station NY1 in my survey, but David Cote is a stringer for the channel and his television review is essentially the same as his TONY notice, cited above.)

(I didn’t report all the comments of the reviewers concerning the double casting of Linney and Nixon.  Nearly all the writers agreed that it’s an interesting gambit, and most in my survey found that the better pairing is Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie—but the difference is small and all the reviewers acknowledged that if a theatergoer can’t see both variations, seeing either one would be more than satisfying.)

1 comment:

  1. Cynthia Nixon won a Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for her work in 'The Little Foxes' at the ceremony on 11 June 2017 at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Jane Greenwood also garnered the award for Best Costume Design of a Play.