The Belgian director Ivo van Hove loves great playwriting. This may tempt those who disliked his previous New York productions to mutter, “Each man kills the thing he loves,” but van Hove’s passion for the scripts he chooses to animate is clearly both genuine and intense, however misguided you consider his results.
The proof, as shown in his latest work, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (New York Theatre Workshop), is that his choices alter with the material. He’s no theory-peddler, racking every play on the same Procrustean bed of abstract notions, nor is he a new-style hack reducing all texts to one set of Eurotrash clichés. In his way, which will never be to everyone’s taste, he is only looking for the best means of animating what he finds on the page.
The Little Foxes displays his idea of those means as lucidly as anything he’s done. Familiar not only from repeated revivals, but from William Wyler’s classic film version and from Marc Blitzstein’s “Broadway opera” adaptation, Regina, Hellman’s 1939 drama is an intimate, tautly constructed work in the classic “well-made play” form. Like Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire, the two greater plays on which van Hove and his leading actress here, Elizabeth Marvel, previously collaborated, Foxes centers on a “wicked” woman, whose destructive actions seem to stem partly from her desperate situation, partly from a long process of being victimized as a woman, and partly from inner drives less easily fathomed.
In Foxes, the heroine’s inner drive manifests itself as greed. Though comfortably off, Regina Giddens (Marvel) has been deprived all her life of her own choices. Now, finally, through a shady deal to exploit the local labor force, she and her brothers have a chance at immense wealth, bringing her freedom of action. Only her ailing banker spouse, Horace (Christopher Evan Welch), stands in their way.
Hellman’s play is all business, a set of deals and counter-deals carried on within the family circle, attended by the deep mixture of love and loathing that Regina and her two siblings, forceful Ben (Marton Csokas) and pusillanimous Oscar (Thomas Jay Ryan), feel for each other. Abetted by Oscar’s rascally son, Leo (Nick Westrate), the brothers plot to cut Regina out of the scheme. Further reversals enable her to cut herself back in, at their cost. In the process, Horace dies, Regina irrevocably alienates her daughter, Zan (Cristin Milioti), and every skeleton in the family closet gets a sound rattling. Hellman is emphatic, maybe over-emphatic, about who’s good and who’s bad in this clan, but she takes pains to give her villains both a credible psychology and an individuality that keeps them from seeming merely malign puppets. Hers is best-quality melodrama, its wider moral applications still relevant today.
And today is where van Hove places it, with no concessions to naturalism, history, or Hellman’s stage directions. Jan Versweyveld’s set is no Southern mansion but a stark dark-walled box with a white ceiling. A second black box within it stands in for a mantelpiece; the ornate Victorian frame over it contains not a painting but a video screen, on which scenes taking place upstairs are sometimes projected. Instead of a fireplace, under this mantel stands the play’s all-important staircase, its use kept to a minimum.
Minimalist music throbs under key moments; familiar contemporary songs (Randy Newman, John Lennon) comment on climaxes. Apart from Horace, white-shirted and barefoot, and Oscar’s unhappy wife, Birdie (Tina Benko), in red, nearly everyone wears black. The dialogue is carried on alternately in a casual murmur at the edge of audibility, or in a frenzied shriek. All lines containing the racist N-word, which Hellman’s characters use in the casual way of Southerners circa 1900, are shouted. The staging’s physicality is brutish: Where Hellman’s Oscar slaps Birdie’s face once, van Hove’s punches her repeatedly in the stomach; Regina shoves Ben up against a wall and pummels him.
This coarsening doesn’t actually ruin the play, in part because Hellman constructed it so sturdily, and in part because van Hove has assembled a cast strong enough to capture audience interest even through the crude obviousness of his chosen style. One could easily imagine them playing the piece as Hellman expected to see it, and you may often wish they were doing so. Yet that isn’t the whole story. We’ve learned to expect magic from Marvel, who can build layers of meaning and pathos out of the merest mutter; high-quality work from artists like Welch, Csokas, or Lynda Gravatt as the housekeeper, Addie, is no surprise. But Benko finds unexpected variety inside van Hove’s rigid conception of Birdie; Ryan’s Oscar has a delicacy new to his range. Clearly, van Hove has found ways to release their creativity. Now if he could only realize that we’ve long since gotten the points on which he pounds so heavily; we want to see the rest of the play, too. Impressed as I grudgingly am with his results, the review I’d most like to read of his work would be Lillian Hellman’s.
Lucy Thurber’s Bottom of the World (Atlantic Stage 2) is melodrama, too, less polished than Hellman’s and of a more personal kind. A young woman novelist (Jessica Love) has been killed; her half-sister (Crystal A. Dickinson), paralyzed by grief, relives conversations with her, alternating with scenes from the dead woman’s just-published novel, in which the semi-siblings’ bond has been transposed into the stormy relations of two young men (Brendan Griffin and Brandon J. Dirden) caught up in a love triangle in a rural New England farm town. A subplot graphs the marital tempests of the grieving sister’s best friend’s parents (Kristin Griffith and Peter Maloney).
Impressive in its ambitions, Thurber’s script has many strong passages in what’s becoming her signature style: tenderness edged with razor blades. Regrettably, it also has long passages that tread familiar, almost cliché’d, ground while its focus drifts aimlessly among its multiple plots. It needs, and probably deserves, another draft. Caitriona McLaughlin’s production struggles to give it shape; as with Little Foxes, the solution often involves pointless screaming.