Elizabeth Marvel and Marton Csokas in a scene from The Little Foxes
(Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld)
Belgian-Dutch director Ivo van Hove has collaborated with American actress Elizabeth Marvel on controversial deconstructions of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Now they have returned to the New York Theatre Workshop to turn their attention to Lillian Hellman’s 1939 theatrical warhorse, The Little Foxes, a study of greed in a small Alabama town, circa 1900. This seems to be the year for dramas about greed with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps appearing on the big screen and the first NY revival of Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, having appeared this summer.
Van Hove’s minimalist, modern dress production draws the intended parallel that this story of avarice and materialism is still relevant today but sacrifices the turn-of-the-last century Southern manners that make the characters so vicious. The approach makes the play veer headlong from melodrama to Strindberg to expressionism to Greek tragedy and back again like a runaway train. The saving grace is the superb ensemble cast headed by the always remarkable Marvel as the voracious Regina Giddens. The Little Foxes is one of those well-made plays whose plotting is involving enough that it remains compelling, regardless of the directorial approach or casting.
Lillian Hellman’s story is reputedly inspired by her Southern ancestors. The Hubbard brothers, Ben and Oscar, who have grown rich on the labor of their town’s poor whites and blacks, have a deal with Chicago entrepreneur William Marshall to bring the northern mills to the southern cotton which will make them all millionaires. Typical of the time period, the sister Regina (married to the town banker) has no money of her own, but her brothers offer to cut her husband Horace in with a one-third share.
The problem is that the ailing Horace is at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and has not answered any of Regina’s letters about coming home or investing. When Regina tricks Horace into coming home, he refuses to be party to any such deal, not only to punish Regina whose contempt for him is palpable but to keep the Hubbards from squeezing any more money out of the community. This is when the greedy little foxes (i.e. the Hubbard siblings) get busy with their conniving. Regina will not be left out, while her brothers are only too happy to keep her share for themselves.
Jan Versweyveld, Van Hove’s usual designer, has created a rectangular playing space that is deep purple and devoid of furniture. Center stage is an archway that one would expect to contain a fireplace but instead frames a staircase that rises from stage right to stage left. Over the archway, which would have been a mantle piece, is a video screen which in each of the play’s three acts reveals what is happening in another room. Costume designer Kevin Guyer who worked on van Hove’s Hedda Gabler has put the Hubbard siblings in black, Ben’s wife Birdie, a patrician unhappily married to Oscar, in a blood red gown, and the children, Oscar’s son Leo and Regina’s daughter Alexandra, in charcoal and black, as only 50% Hubbards. The effect is chic and contemporary and perfect for what Van Hove has in mind. The use of the video remains obtrusive rather than revelatory. Do we really need to see Horace get up from his sick bed, or Ben and Oscar take coffee in the next room?
Aside from attempting to make the play up-to-date and relevant, a point which is almost too obvious to need stating, the stage is turned into a violent playroom by van Hove’s direction. Whereas Hellman has Oscar administer a single slap to his wife Birdie when she steps out of line, here Oscar administers several. One character is assaulted, and later gets her payback by slamming her attacker against the wall in the following scene. Since there is no furniture, characters have to recline on the floor to have confidential talks while in their evening clothes. Performed in one act without intermission, this Little Foxes offers no sense of time passing, but often feels too long in its running time.
Von Hove’s interpretation partly misses Hellman’s point: Regina is not a monster from choice but a victim of a time in society when women had no options. Like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Regina is a woman who has been educated to do nothing but grace her husband’s drawing room. However, as the smartest one in the room and aching to achieve something, she has gone on the offensive and taken advantage of each dishonest opportunity that comes along.
We are still told that Papa Hubbard left everything to his sons and gave Regina nothing, but there is no sense that Regina could have been other than she is had she been given an outlet for her talents and her free time. Marvel seems rueful of how things have turned out, but is never allowed to show us the woman that Regina might have been.
The overt physical violence is exactly what Hellman avoided and what made her play so frightening: that one could symbolically twist another’s arm without lifting a finger. Here, the violence becomes predicable as well as tiresome. Yes, the Hubbards’ dishonest dealings of 1900 are still going on today, but it is rather simplistic to think that a modern audience could not see the parallel to the shady transactions of our own economic time. And the play’s language and vocabulary are still very much of 1900: a reference to an autograph given the Hubbard’s parents by composer Richard Wagner, the constant use of the “N’’ word, etc.
The acting style is as raw and nakedly emotional as the stripped down scenery and costumes. Marvel’s face registers every thought and emotion that flickers by. In a role that has won acclaim for Tallulah Bankhead, Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing on stage and Bette Davis in the film version, Marvel always commands the stage. What this approach does not allow her to use is the velvet glove that Hellman’s original turn-of-the-century Regina was famous for.
The men in the production each seem have chosen a single character trait and pursued that in their performance. It works only because the emotions are so naked as to be frightening in themselves. Marton Csokas’ Ben is all steely will, Thomas Jay Ryan’s Oscar is neurotically paranoid, while Christopher Evan Welch’s Horace is all hostile backbone.
In a role that is often overlooked, Tina Benko makes Oscar’s wife Birdie into her own woman, one with tremendous regrets and her own coping devices. Both Nick Westrate and Cristin Milioti hold their own in this company as the Hubband offspring. Westrate’s Leo, a cub who more resembles his uncle than his father, has already developed slimy, cunning tricks. Alexandra, played by Milioti, both Regina and Horace’s daughter, has the recalcitrance and the strength of character of both her parents.
As the Hubbard servants, Lynda Gravatt and Greig Sargeant are most affected by van Hove’s approach which makes them one-note rather than the moral voice of a Greek chorus they are intended to be. Casting the Chicago entrepreneur with an actor (Sanjit De Silva) who appears to be Middle Eastern seems trendy and reductive rather than meaningful.
Ivo van Hove’s reinterpretation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, surely destined to be controversial, does blow off some of the mustiness that lingers around this American period classic. However, the success of portraying the play as a contemporary parable of our time is questionable and the violence of the acting fails to replace the withering social manners that the production avoids. Nevertheless, this Little Foxes offers a fine cast in virtuoso performances and gives Elizabeth Marvel yet another opportunity to create an indelible characterization in her Regina Giddens.
The Little Foxes (through October 31)
New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com