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A CurtainUp Review
The Little Foxes
By Elyse Sommer
But hold on, Linney isn't the only Regina in this fourth Broadway revival of Hellman's uber-dysfunctional family drama without a hero or heroine. Linney and Cynthia Nixon are alternately playing the infamously venomous Regina and her more vulnerable sister-in-law, the alcoholic Birdie Hubbard. Nixon, who besides being famous courtesy of TV's Sex and and the City is a Tony winning stage actress, also has strong box office appeal.
Is this Manhattan Theater Club's recognition that even an elegantly staged production of a popular play with a large cast, nowadways needs some special gimmick to sell ever more expensive tickets? Does that apply even to Hellman's ever timely finger pointing at money as the destructive root of immoral behavior and the way it can trigger enmity even within a close-knit family like the Hubbards — the Southern clan that's hell bent on getting in on a Chicago financier's plan to bring a cotton plant to their town, even though it will kill poor workers' jobs.
According to a pre-opening interview with Laura Linney, this was actually her idea. She knew Nixon had long wanted to play Regina and so she suggested this shared performance set-up to MTC's artistic director Lynne Meadow who okayed it. While the average theater goer isn't likely to have the time or money to both Linney and Nixon do their Regina/Birdie roles, the casting has helped to draw attention to a production that's opening at a time when the Rialto is buzzing with new shows.
Though Linney's official opening night performance is the one eligible for a best actress Tony. I chose a matinee with Nixon in the leading role. That's not because I prefer Nixon to Linney. On the contrary, Linney is one of my favorite actresses. Having seen her prove her ability to portray the dark, icy Marquise in Les Liaison Dangereuses I could easily picture her as the cold-hearted, unstoppably ambitious Regina. However, I somehow didn't see her as an easy fit for Birdie, the fluttery, insecure abused wife. While Regina is undisputably the larger and generally more attention getting role, I've always had a special fondness for Birdie.
The various Reginas I've seen retained their star status whether following the over-the top interpretations of Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis (whose iconic performance you can still watch on YouTube or inexpensive disks), or taking a more laid back approach to the ruthless battle with her callous brothers and sick husband. However, the big surprise has often come from the actress playing Birdie. Maureen Stapleton's Birdie was every bit as memorable as Elizabeth Tailor's Regina. Powerful as Elizabeth Marvel was in Ivo Van Hove's production, it was Tina Benko's Birdie who brought a beating heart to that stripped down and highly stylized staging.
As for Cynthia Nixon as the other half of this casting innovation, she somehow struck me as a more natural choice for Birdie. Seeing the Nixon/Regina-Linney/Birdie configuration afforded me a chance to see if Linney could be a convincing, or even outstanding, Birdie and also assess how Nixon handled Regina.
So what's the verdict? To begin, kudos to both actresses for memorizing and interpreting two roles. And while neither is going to eclipse Bette Davis's iconic Regina or Maureen Stapleton's unforgettable Birdie, both gave solid performances. Nixon is appropriately cool, poised and poisonously opportunistic. With the help of Tom Watson's unflattering wigs, Linney takes some getting used to as Birdie but she does manage to look Birdie-ish rather than her usual poised and attractive self. I found her perfomance to be at its heart-tugging heights during the scene in which she's drunk enough to talk freely about the disaster her marriage has been.
To round out the Giddens household there's Regina's daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini making her Broadway debut) who has us hoping she will get away from this poisonous world; also Addie and Cal (the very fine Caroline Steffanie Clay and Charle Turner) as the servants who represent the people who must stand by and, as Addie observes, watch their employers "eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts."
Scott Pask's opulent set is, typical of other . . .Foxes on Broadway, and all MTC productions, is something of a character in its own right. While that handsome set remains the same throughout the three acts, Jane Greenwood has provided a stunning array of costumes for Regina, Birdie and Alexandra to wear in each act.
To sum up, I don't think you'll be disappointed if you choose to see the Nixon-as-Regina . . .Foxes. From my conversations with some audience members, they seemed satisfied with Ms. Nixon's Regina and the production overall. Tickets were bougt mainly to see this play for the first time or again, and because the date worked well for them.
The novelty casting did leave me wishing that one of these days some company will take on the challenge of doing a repertory staging of The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest which was written after the . . .Foxes but was actually a prequel. It had a successful run on Broadway, won a Tony for Patricia Neal's Regina an was made into a movie. Yet, it's rarely produced anywhere. (Curtainup did catch a 2010 Off-Broadway production).
My colleague Charles Wright saw both versions and his report on that experience should help readers unsure about which cast to see to make a decision. It may even persuade some to jump in all the way as he did.
A 2000 Broadway engagement of Sam Shepard's True West featured Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, playing a pair of competitive brothers and switching roles from performance to performance. ( Curtainup's review). The distinguished Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, has been presenting Hamlet this month with Jonathan Dyrud and Laura Welsh Berg alternating in the title part and the role of Rosencrantz. But opportunities to see actors exchanging roles in this manner are rare.
In her 1973 memoir Pentimento Hellman recalls that when producer-director Herman Shumlin was casting the original production of The Little Foxes prominent actresses shied away from Regina for fear the character's unsympathetic qualities might damage their public images. Tallulah Bankhead, whose career was at a low ebb, was engaged for the part after Ina Claire and Judith Anderson turned it down.
Linney and Nixon both feast on what's less than appealing in Regina. Linney cloaks herself in nouveau riche hauteur. With pompadour coiffure (evocative of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Nancy Astor) and stately Gibson Girl era gowns, Linney's Regina is a grand chatelaine, striking one imperious pose after another. Her deportment indicates how proud she is to have scaled social terrain from middling status to the tip-top of the upper middle class, but also how insecure she is underneath the sophisticated carapace.
Nixon is a more relaxed, casual Regina. Her movements are fluid, feline and insouciant. Speaking with detachment, she's chilly rather than regal. Her lower imperiousness quotient suggests that this Regina is more self-confident and less apt to strain for refinement than Linney's. After stirring cream into her coffee, for instance, Nixon licks the spoon greedily, a self-indulgent bit of stage business, indicative of Regina's humble beginnings and unimaginable from Linney's more stiffly poised Regina.
Fantasizing about the investment she's demanding husband Horace (Richard Thomas) make in her brothers' new cotton mill, Regina proclaims: "I'm going to Chicago. And when I'm settled there and know the right people and the right things to buy — because I certainly don't now — I shall go to Paris and buy them."
In Linney's reading, that line bespeaks real insecurity. Her Regina is abashed about not being acquainted with the right people or their tastes; she's on guard against gestures or actions that might compromise her imposing affectations, and fearful of losing some of the social ground she has gained. Nixon's Regina, on the other hand, isn't abashed or afraid of being found out; she's simply concerned with climbing higher up the social ladder.
The difference in the actresses' interpretations is most marked in Act Three, when Regina realizes that Horace has scotched her chance of gaining a share in her brothers' ambitious business venture. At that moment, Linney's audacious self-possession melts away with her villainy. Her posture sags; she loses her grand-lady drawl. For a few moments (until fate intervenes to keep Horace from following through on his plan), Linney's Regina is reduced to what she was in her early days: daughter of a humble shopkeeper (perhaps a former peddler), destined to peer in the windows of the rich without ever being invited inside.
Nixon never gives us the idea that her Regina sees defeat as a possibility. Her Regina is a villain throughout, lucky before and determined to regain the upper hand as swiftly as possible. Her progress may be slowed, but there's no doubt she'll persevere.
Taking on the role of Birdie, the abused wife who drinks on the sly, Nixon comes across as especially wretched and beaten down. Linney, on the other hand, is more energetic and, consequently, less pathetic.
The question of pathos is important here. Hellman was writing this play in a decade when important American thinkers were re-assessing the impact of industrialization on life in the South and lamenting the demise of the agrarian tradition. As Stark Young wrote in "Not In Memoriam, But In Defense" (one of the essays of the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand): "It would be childish and dangerous for the South to be stampeded and betrayed out of its own character by the noise, force, and glittering narrowness of the industrialism and progress spreading everywhere, with varying degrees, from one region to another." The Little Foxes is, in large part, about the stampede and betrayal that concerned Young and his Agrarian brethren.
The modesty and simplicity of Nixon's Birdie reflect the noblesse oblige ideal of her upper crust origins — a linchpin of the Old South that Young admired. The imperiousness of Linney's Regina perfectly embodies the noise and force that Young saw as having trampled the gentility and traditions of plantation culture and the urban charms of pre-industrial Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans. Nixon's Birdie is a neurotic mess, but her gentle deportment is more a matter of breeding than of low self-esteem. Even when drunk, she's gallant — kind, loving and courteous to all about her — from the servants (Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner) to the husband (Darren Goldstein) who often brutalizes her.
Hellman has given Birdie an Act Three aria that goes from sober cheer to drunken despair. Both actresses handle it with aplomb (and, at the performances I attended, both received spontaneous applause); but Nixon captures the Jekyll-Hyde transformation of a fueled-up alcoholic with a precision that I've never seen on stage before.
Is either actress better in one role than the other? The answer is no — they're both at the top of their form and both offer interpretations that are intriguing and defensible. Though the chemistry of the ensemble is affected somewhat by the role switches, the two fit admirably among their colleagues in both parts. In sociological terms, though, there's a special aptness to Linney's grandiose Regina, stampeding what Stark Young calls "the fine flower" of "Southern civilization" as that blossom is poignantly represented by Nixon's gentle, utterly credible Birdie.
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The Little Foxes Lillian Hellman
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast: Laura Linney/Cynthia Nixon (Regina Hubbard Giddens/Birdie Hubbard), Richard Thomas(Horace Giddens), Darren Goldstein (Oscar Hubbard),Michael McKean (Ben Hubbard), Michael Benz (Leo Hubbard),David Alford (Mr. Marshall), Francesca Capanini(Alexandra Giddens), Caroline Stefanie Clay (Addie), Charles Turner(Cal)
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Sound: Fitz Patton
Hair & Wigs: Tom Watson
Make Up: Tommy Kurzman
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including 2 intermissions
MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street 239-6200
From 3/29/17; opening 4/19/17; closing 6/18/17-extended to 7/02/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 16th press preview; and by Charles Wright April 20th and 23rd
The Alternating Cast schedule: Wed, Thurs, Fri & Sat matinees: Cynthia Nixon (Birdie), Laura Linney (Regina); Tues, Wed, Sat evenings & Sunday matinees: Cynthia Nixon (Regina), Laura Linney (Birdie)
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