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Broadway Reviews

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 19, 2017

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Make-up design by Tommy Kurzman. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas, David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge


Laura Linney
Photo by Joan Marcus

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. This notion, as difficult to argue as it is to define, is the guiding force behind Daniel Sullivan's new Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Little Foxes, which just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman. In this version of Lillian Hellman's 1939 potboiler more than most, you are acutely aware—in more ways than is probably ideal, to be honest—of the towering changes that tiny adjustments can bring.

This is chiefly because of the way that this mounting shares the wealth. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon split the roles of the scheming Regina Giddens and her put-upon alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard, swapping off every other performance. Though this might have the appearance of a cynical cash-grab, the point here is not that far removed from its application in, for example, the acclaimed 2000 production of True West, in which John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman traded off the leads. Regina may be emotionally and financially needy (or greedy, if you're being less charitable), and the aristocratic Birdie a victim of social forces beyond her control, but a slight nudge at the right time in the past could well have been enough to transform one of these turn-of-the-20th-century Alabama women into the other.

Their methods of admiration of what the other has, and in some limited cases acquisition of it (or at least the attempt), are rife throughout the script, which is more interested with telling a ripping-good story than in pushing a message. Regina's brothers, Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein), are plotting to establish a cotton mill that should grant them an enormous fortune down the line, if only they could get the final $75,000 in funds they need from Regina's hospital-bound husband, Horace (Richard Thomas). Regina, longing for the security once upon a time afforded by the likes of Birdie's plantation-owning kin, stalks the front lines of acquiring the money, to the point of sending her 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to Baltimore to bring the dying man home. Birdie, meanwhile, wastes away on the fringes, disrespected not just by her husband, Oscar, but their nasty son Leo (Michael Benz), and taking pleasure only in her close relationship to Alexandra and a friendship with Horace that Regina can't match (and wouldn't want to).


Cynthia Nixon and Francesca Carpanini
Photo by Joan Marcus

The problem, then, is not with the concept or the application of it. Sullivan pays careful attention to mores and appearances with his staging, keeping an atmosphere of taut secrecy thick at all times, and reinforcing just how concerned everything is with doing things properly. If the physical production lacks that dedication to detail—with a set (by Scott Pask) that dwells on the family's storied history, but cries out for a more majestic staircase for mood- and plot-critical reasons; costumes (by Jane Greenwood), that, particularly for the women, are more adjacent to character than emblematic of it; and lights (by Justin Townsend) that have a slight ghostly feel—it's acceptable. What's not is that Nixon and Linney do not equivalently fill out their parts.

Nixon, who tends to fall more along the lines of distant and brittle in her performances, is simply not a good fit for the nasty, take-charge Regina, who barely suppresses the contempt she feels for most everyone in her life. Playing her, Nixon looks uncertain and uncomfortable, as though she can't understand the searing drives that would lead a woman to brutal acts of (implicit) violence, alienation, blackmail, and more to build a future for herself she doesn't believe Horace can provide. On the rare occasions she doesn't resemble a tween girl playing dress-up, she conveys the waxy, angular stolidity of a department-store mannequin, and projects no heat and no threat. Yet when applied to Birdie, her petrified fragility becomes a palpable sensitivity; she movingly juggles her hopeful and resigned natures, never letting one stay at the fore for too long. Nixon's Birdie is a mess of contradictions and a contradictory mess—a perfectly solid take on her.

Thanks to her unique ability to brandish personal warmth and sharp edges, Linney fares infinitely better as Regina. In addition to being far more likable, the picture of deceptive contendedness, she also effortlessly navigates the emotional and tactical quick-changes that outline her, while not downplaying her ravenousness. Plus, minute alterations of aim and intention when dealing with the men reveal a glimmering spectrum of colors and facets that keep you and them guessing, but not suspecting the worst—until it's too late. You can't know what she's going to do until it's already done, and that makes her both dangerous and delicious.


Richard Thomas, Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein,
and Michael Benz
Photo by Joan Marcus

Blending rage, passion, and a hollowed-out soul in roughly equal measure, it's one of the most compelling portrayals I have seen Linney give onstage. But her Birdie is almost as good, an inversion of that interpretation, but with kindness the obvious foundation from which everything else springs. This pays enormous dividends in the third act, when Birdie is thoroughly soused and revealing way too much about the truths that propel her, but the pain is also deeper earlier on, when Oscar leaves no doubt as to the regard in which he holds her (or, rather, doesn't).

The other actors are no less than satisfying. Thomas is on target as Horace, showing not just his state in mid-wither, but also hinting at the stronger man he used to be. Goldstein's passive-aggressive exasperation gives a bold sheen to Oscar, and Benz lands on a good balance of youthful, vacuous, and bloodthirsty for Leo. Carpanini takes Alexandra a bit broad and McKean Ben a bit narrow, but they're each fine; better still are Charles Turner and Caroline Stefanie Clay as the black servants, who see and feel things more clearly than those above them do.

Only when Linney is Regina and Nixon is Birdie are you likely to feel you do, as well, and that's the only combination I'd suggest you go out of your way to see unless you're a die-hard fan of The Little Foxes (or one or both of the lead actresses). As it is, Sullivan's spin might be on the weighty side; as rendered here, the action is definitely more slow burn than all-consuming crackle. Either way, this is a fiery play that's a definite hot spot for the season when Linney is working her blazing magic on a Regina you won't forget anytime soon.









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