It’s a funny thing about reputations: they’re forever shifting. At the beginning of Lillian Hellman’s career, she was routinely praised for the quality of her melodramas. Her defiant response to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 further solidified her status. When she was caught dissembling in her memoir Pentimento, she lost substantial ground. The more recent downgrading of the well-made play in the eyes of most theatergoers hasn’t helped her standing, either.
But some of us remain staunch admirers of Hellman’s work. We dismiss the minor tectonic shifts in how her canon is regarded; we separate her work from her private and public behavior. In 1965, I was seated next to Hellman at a screening of Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, with its Terry Southern screenplay. She reacted to the over-the-top gags as if she were the queen of the Banshees. Not a disarming display. On the other hand, any woman who served as the inspiration for Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man novels is OK by me.
So I’m steadfast in my admiration for The Little Foxes, Hellman’s 1939 play set in the aspiring South of 1900, when the antebellum aristocracy was more a thing of the past and the strivers that replaced them were grasping, by hook or by crook, for all they could get. This blissfully cynical work is as juicy a three-act play as anyone would hope to find in American theater annals — a fact just about completely reconfirmed by Daniel Sullivan’s two-fisted revival for Manhattan Theater Club on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Apparently in response to a suggestion by top-billed Laura Linney, this Little Foxes further ratchets up our interest, supposedly, by the casting twist of Linney and Cynthia Nixon switching off in the lead female roles: Regina Hubbard Giddens, Hellman’s cunning vixen, and Regina’s aristocratic sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard. (The original Regina and Birdie were, respectively, Tallulah Bankhead and Patricia Collinge, who did not switch roles.)
Regina and her acquisitive brothers, Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) — the latter is married to Birdie and regularly abusing her — have a cotton mill business deal pending with a mogul from Chicago, Mr. Marshall (David Alford). The deal depends on the siblings ponying up their share of the capital. While scheming Ben and Oscar evidently have money in hand, Regina is counting on her upstanding husband, Horace (Richard Thomas), to underwrite her requirement.
Horace has been recovering from a damaged heart at a facility in Baltimore. When he returns and denies Regina the cash, the plot thickens. Indeed, it thickens still further when Leo (Michael Benz), the son of Oscar and Birdie who works at a bank, announces that he’s peeked into Horace’s strongbox and discovered $88,000 in bonds. No more needs to be disclosed of Hellman’s dandy script other than the fact that she makes certain it reflects the Song of Solomon quote from which she borrows her title:
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
Beyond Birdie, the other tender grape is Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), who’s devoted to her father and far from eager to marry the spineless Leo — her first cousin. Family servants Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay) and Cal (Charles Turner) can take care of themselves even as they take care of the Giddens clan.
The Little Foxes doesn’t warrant reviving simply because it’s amusing to recall Hellman’s highly skilled way with a gritty period saga. Toward the play’s end there’s a speech about the Hubbards of the world increasingly inheriting the earth, much as Regina, Ben and Oscar wrested Birdie’s inheritance from her family’s lands. The declaration is so prescient and timely that one may be forgiven for thinking of the little foxes who are running things around the globe today. Watching Regina attempt to revenge herself on Horace, one might wander toward thoughts of, gee, Donald Trump, and Ivanka and Jared Kushner.
But your mind, like mine, will then quickly refocus on Sullivan’s directorial take on the play, brought to life by Scott Pask’s Greek-columned drawing room and ominously steep staircase and its luxurious Jane Greenwood costumes. (Even the draping at the backs of the Regina and Birdie’s floor-length dresses resembles stately columns.)
The ensemble supporting Linney and Nixon are first-rate and go an impressive distance to underline the incipient evil rotting these Southern vines. (Deborah Hecht is credited as dialect coach, though Sullivan goes light on small-Southern-town accents.)
McKean’s Ben is noxiously imperial. Goldstein’s Oscar is a wily snake. Benz’s Leo is a proper young weasel. Carpanini, as Alexandra, does a keen job of maturing into a wise young woman. Alford’s Marshall, seen only in Act 1, is suave. Clay’s Addie and Turner’s Cal are, in some ways, the strongest characters present.
Then there’s Horace — through which Thomas proves yet again that he is one of our most outstanding character actors. Illustrating Horace’s disdain for Regina, he is at times subtle and, at other times when he has lost all patience with his unloving wife, boisterous and accusatory. He does just about the most theatrical death scene Broadway has witnessed in quite a while.
Which brings us to the leading ladies. Perhaps as the saying goes, comparisons are odious. Nonetheless, there are times when they seem called for, and this is one of them. As Regina, Linney, looking beautiful in her Greenwood wardrobe, has authority but doesn’t fully possess the impenetrably evil core required by her character. Nixon, also as striking as we’ve ever seen her, has a certain chill but hasn’t really the voice for Regina’s cruel demands. She’s more shrike than demon.
Linney’s Birdie is brighter than Hellman’s Birdie is actually written, which translates into a truly funny Act 3 drunk scene. Birdie is a woman broken by her husband’s tormenting treatment, which Linney does not realize. By contrast, Nixon’s interpretation is inspired. Her Birdie is a woman aware of how pathetic she’s become but unable to rise from it. Linney and Nixon are surely enjoying the challenge they’ve given themselves and each other, but, were push to become shove, they might see that the former is a more appropriate Regina and the latter a more appropriate Birdie. Patrons trying to choose the best combo, of course, might decide otherwise.