By Karen Isaacs
Two outstanding actresses are alternating roles in the current revival of The Little Foxes now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are each playing Regina and Birdie in this excellent production directed by Daniel Sullivan.
I only saw one performance, so this review will focus on Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie. Regina is the larger and showy part; but Birdie has an exceptional scene in the third act that any actress would want to perform.
Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes gives us a tale of greed and duplicity as two brothers and a sister try to build their fortune in the post-Civil War south. The Hubbards are striving upward mainly by stepping all over people. Ben and his brother, Oscar, have built wealth by overcharging, cheating and general unethical business behavior.
Their sister, Regina, has married a banker but she wants more. She wants to move to Chicago and be part of society there. These are people who have “made it” and have no compassion. Whatever they want they will take, by any means necessary.
The play opens at Regina’s home. Her husband has been at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for five months with a heart condition, but it seems that only their teenage daughter, Alexandra, and the two loyal black servants, care. Regina certainly doesn’t except that she needs her husband to provide $75,000 so that she can be an equal partner with her two brothers in a deal with a northern business man. They plan is to build a cotton mill in the town; it will make then rich.
But Horace, Regina’s husband, has not responded to her letters and has said nothing about agreeing to invest. She and the brothers are nervous; the deal must be completed soon. So among the family squabbling and negotiations she decided to send her daughter to Baltimore to bring Horace home. This is after she has forced her brothers to give her more than one-third of the ownership; she knows they don’t want outsiders involved.
While the brothers are antsy for the deal, they are also suspicious that Horace doesn’t want to participate. Plus Oscar is unhappy that Regina’s larger share is coming from his portion. But he has another plan in mind; in fact, he has two. His ne’er-do-well son, Leo works at the bank and through snooping knows that Horace has more than enough bonds in a safe deposit box that could be used to consummate the deal. Neither of the two older men are averse to “borrowing” those bonds. Yet Oscar has another plan up sleeve: he wants Regina to agree to Alexandra marring Leo.
Once the ill Horace arrives home, exhausted, Regina badgers him to get him to agree. He’s angry when he learns that Ben and Oscar have promised the factory owner low wages and no strikes.
Two weeks later, Horace is still not doing well (he has a serious heart condition) and he still has not agreed to provide the money. But he has discovered the bonds are missing from his safe box and he knows that Leo took them. He tells Regina that while he won’t force the brothers to give her a share, he will leave her the bonds in his will: she can then collect the $80,000 from her brothers. This is nowhere near the riches she has her heart set on. After an act of unmitigated cruelty the play ends with Regina being subtly threatened by both her brothers and Alexandra.
Regina is the central role in this play; she can be charming when she wants to be, but she also has an iron will and a cold heart. She will not be thwarted. As Linney plays her, there is not a spark of human kindness in her veins. Her very erect posture shows us she will not bend to anyone – her husband, her brothers, or her daughter. She will get what she wants. If there is a criticism of Linney’s performance, it would be that it is almost too cold; the charm seems so obviously fake, that you don’t see why Horace fell for it long ago or why the Chicago industrialist falls for it in the first scene.
Birdie is a sympathetic character and can be symbolic of the Southern gentry that have seen their wealth and status diminished to those who have no ethics. She is bullied and abused by her husband, ignored by the rest of the family and often shrinks into the background simply observing the machinations of the Hubbard siblings.
But Cynthia Nixon gives us such a multi-layered performance, that even when she off to the side, you can barely keep your eyes off of her. She may be defeated, but there is a spark of life and determination in her. Nixon mines this for the scene in act three where she tells of how she has survived and counsels Alexandra to avoid her fate. Rather than just pity her, you want to cheer her.
Richard Thomas is outstanding as Regina’s husband, Horace. He doesn’t appear until act two (this is a three act play), but he absolutely convinces you both of nearing death and of his realizations about Regina. He is a man who knows he will die soon and want to make right what he can; this includes thwarting Regina. Thomas doesn’t overplay the illness, and thankfully director Sullivan has staged his final moments out of sight of the audience; diminishing what can be a melodramatic moment.
In fact this entire cast is very good. Michael McKean gives us a steely Ben who will bide his time to get back at Regina; Darren Goldstein is Oscar, the brother that both Ben and Regina out-maneuver; you see that he has less of the polish than the others and thus his bully nature is clearer.
In addition Michael Benz gives us the pampered Leo as the youthful cad-in-the-making that he is. His opposite is Francesca Carpanni as Alexandra. She seems to have missed her mother’s manipulativeness, except with her ominous curtain line. The two servants, who often seem the most aware are given fine performances by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner.
The production values are excellent from the impressive mansion by Scott Pask complete with a curving staircase that allows for wonderful entrances, to the costumes by Jane Greenwood, the lighting by Justin Townsend, and the sound by Fitz Patton.
What is most impressive is the way director Daniel Sullivan has kept the play from becoming an over-wrought melodrama. Everything is held in check and balanced.
I can only imagine how the production with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie might be. I suspect it would be equally good.
The Little Foxes is at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. It will run through July 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.