There are two kinds of people in this world, according to the amoral, avaricious Hubbard clan, who headline Lillian Hellman’s sumptuously sour 1939 Southern drama The Little Foxes: the people who devour other people for sport, and the people who stand by and watch them do it. That may be so, but the brilliance of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival is that we root for them all. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, 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.
The Little Foxes is set in Alabama over a two-week period at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the imaginary gentility of the antebellum South — a quality that Hellman never lets us forget — has given way to a crass generation of knuckle-flexing robber barons. The Hubbard siblings — Ben (Michael McKean), Oscar (Darren Goldstein), and Regina — are in the process of opening a cotton mill that has the potential to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. (That the undertaking will be paying a pittance to the laborers they exploit is irrelevant to them.) But only Ben and Oscar have the cash to go in on the deal; Regina, disinherited by her late father, is at the mercy of her estranged husband, Horace (Richard Thomas), whose time convalescing from a heart condition has left him with a similarly terminal case of idealism. Which means, among other things, not investing in exploitative factories.
Is Regina, with her steely determination to best the men in her life at their own game, a feminist heroine or a harbinger of the capitalist apocalypse? 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.
On the Wednesday night in April when I saw the production, Regina was played by Cynthia Nixon, who alternates in the role with Laura Linney. (The actresses also share and alternate the smaller, pivotal role of Birdie, Regina’s sister-in-law.) Flint-eyed and sharp-hearted, Nixon was at her best as a fierce, clever negotiator: playing four-dimensional chess while her loutish brothers are still on checkers. An early scene in the first act, where Regina uses her brothers’ ingrained misogyny to her advantage — she doesn’t know a thing about business, she insists; she’s only negotiating on behalf of her ailing, absent husband, who doesn’t give a damn — is mesmerizing. From the second Regina obliges her brothers with a gleaming, Cheshire-cat smile, we know we’re watching a master manipulator at work — and, in Nixon, a master playing her.
Less convincing are the role’s notes of full-Southern, staircase-draping melodrama: Regina’s feuding with her husband over the disappointments that have poisoned their marriage, or her trying to reconcile with her horrified ingénue daughter (Francesca Carpanini). It’s hard to imagine Regina caring so much about anybody’s opinion but her own. But Sullivan’s production makes us feel for her anyway. When her brothers dismiss her, or when her husband exults in pulling his purse strings tighter, or when Regina disguises her rage with tart and toxic sweetness, we root for her to get her own back, any way she can. Desperate measures, sure, but we never doubt that, for Regina, these are desperate times.
Part of our sympathy for Regina comes from the sheer, stultifying horror of her marriage. As the estranged Horace, Thomas is almost toxically pleasant. His hospital “epiphany” — that he wants nothing to do with the Hubbards’ business dealings — is at once a note of idealism and a form of abuse. With only weeks (if not days) to live, Horace takes delight in tormenting his wife with his own moral superiority. Even when he’s thundering at her about her business choices in the manner of a revivalist preacher — one of the production’s most powerful scenes — we never forget for a second that his moral high ground comes at the cost of Regina’s financial security.
The Little Foxes‘ minor characters are no less richly developed. As Regina’s nephew Leo, Michael Benz is equal parts buffoonish and grotesque: a man so slavishly desperate for his family’s approval that he’s willing to sell his soul in the bargain. Unlike in many previous iterations, the character’s inherited proclivity for brutishness — which his mother, Birdie, frequently worries over — rings false here. This Leo seems more likely to be spooked by horses than to whip them until they bleed.
As Birdie, a relic of an aristocratic South with all the mental addlement of an American Habsburg, Laura Linney is an eruption of Edwardian frills, as delicate as the lace she’s always drowning in. Her monologue in the third act about her decision to marry the brutish Oscar is a bravura moment; wrapped up in a drunken hysteria as she reminisces about her foolish childhood notions, Linney is at once believably, affectingly sloppy and utterly controlled. It’s difficult to imagine Linney and Nixon swapping roles, but both actresses command our trust so thoroughly it’s just as difficult imagining that a reversed cast would falter.
Although Birdie engages our sympathies far more obviously than Regina does, she isn’t spared Hellman’s or Sullivan’s judgment, either. After all, this Southern paradise she so longs for — with its gentility and fair-mindedness — was built on the backs of slaves. Her reveries about her lost family plantation, Lionnet, a place where “nobody had ever lost their temper,” are constantly undercut by reminders of the slavery that propped it up, not least because the play’s two black characters — both domestic servants, played with complexity by Charles Turner and Caroline Stefanie Clay – are never far from the action. Indeed, their stories provide vivid counterpoints to the Hubbard clan’s myopia. In one telling scene, the governess Addie (Clay) refuses Horace’s offer of money in his will: Who, she asks, would allow a black woman to collect on a white man’s inheritance?
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. 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.
The Little Foxes
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street