Crazy Like Little Foxes

In the 1941 film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, for which Hellman also wrote the screenplay, Oscar Hubbard, one of the three avaricious siblings at the center of the play, slaps his alcoholic wife across the face after he overhears her betraying his machinations to their niece. At that same moment in the Dutch director Ivo Van Hove’s stark reinterpretation, which opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop, Oscar pulls back and punches her in the gut. He does this three times.

This classic portrait of greed and betrayal among an upper-class Southern family at the turn of the 20th century has always been wrenching–its antiheroine, Regina Giddens, schemes relentlessly to get the biggest piece of a lucrative business deal her brothers have assembled, in the process alienating them, allowing her husband to die, and, ultimately, watching her daughter, the doted-upon Alexandra, abandon her.

But Mr. Van Hove’s Little Foxes, as those body blows suggest, is even harsher, tougher, and more painful than its typical stagings. (Its 1939 debut ran for 410 performances; in addition to the movie, there were also Broadway revivals in 1967, 1981, and 1997.) It’s intense, visceral, claustrophobic–like any obsessive, deeply enmeshed family–and mesmerizing.

Mr. Van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, have placed all the action in one essentially furnitureless room, a squat, purple-felt box that heightens the claustrophobia, with four simple chandeliers overhead and a rectangular tower in its center that suggests both a family hearth, with a video screen–often depicts what’s happening offstage–hung over it like a painting and also a stairway. The actors are in modern dress and their Southerness is played lightly. This Little Foxes is no longer a dated drawing-room melodrama.

Instead it’s a timeless portrait of heartless people obsessed with money, and the brutal lengths they’ll go to in order to get it. (In the program, a timeline notes that an October 2008 reading, “as the financial crisis deepens, convinces all that the time is right for the production.”)

The great downtown actress Elizabeth Marvel, Mr. Van Hove’s collaborator in his much-praised NYTW reimagings of A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler, plays the key role of Regina. She has big shoes to fill, both figuratively–Tallulah Bankhead originated the role, Bette Davis played it in the movie, and Elizabeth Taylor starred in a revival–and literally, an impressive pair of heels paired with a short gray skirt in the late scenes. She does both spectacularly, delivering a devastating performance (and looking fantastic).

The rest of the cast is equally strong, especially Tina Benko as Birdie Hubbard, Oscar’s alcoholic wife, who makes herself a sexy and aware (if ignored) woman, rather than the simpering simpleton of the film. The only wrong note is Christopher Evan Welch as Horace Giddens, Regina’s ailing and dignified husband. It’s a somewhat underwritten character–it’s never clear why this upstanding banker, a man disgusted by his wife’s unscrupulous family, ever married into it–but the scruffy Mr. Welch lacks the patrician gravitas the part requires.

Still, Mr. Welch injects the play with its only notes of tenderness. In scene near its end, he, Birdie, Alexandra, and their loyal maid, Addie, briefly comprise a hopeful image of a happy family, a counterfactual that could never be realized.

But of course it can’t: The Little Foxes looks at families, and human nature, cynically, not hopefully. And cynicism, as Hellman has Ben Hubbard, the dominant sibling, say in one of the play’s most memorable line, “is only an unpleasant way to say the truth.” That is, of course, the most cynical–and perhaps truthful–part of all.

Crazy Like Little Foxes