Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 53

On this night, Cynthia Nixon relishes the role of Regina, while Laura Linney plays the more docile Birdie. Southern Discomfort Cutthroat Alabama siblings fight for financial dominance in The Little Foxes T BY TARA ISABELLA BURTON 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, disin-herited by her late father, is at the mercy of her estranged husband, Horace (Rich-ard 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 determina-tion to best the men in her life at their own game, a feminist heroine or a harbin-ger of the capitalist apocalypse? Sulli-van’s genius is not to contort the play into a funnel for banal message-making, but to let a team of virtuosic actors loose on-stage 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 here are two kinds of people in this world, according to the amoral, avaricious Hubbard clan, who headline Lillian Hell-man’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 re-vival is that we root for them all. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the production invests us as much in the pain and suffering be-hind 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 nine-teenth 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 Hub-bard siblings — Ben (Michael McKean), Oscar (Darren Goldstein), and Regina — hospital “epiphany” — that he wants nothing to do with the Hubbards’ busi-ness dealings — is at once a note of ideal-ism 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 slav-ishly desperate for his family’s approval that he’s willing to sell his soul in the bar-gain. 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 Joan Marcus her decision to marry the brutish Oscar is a bravura moment; wrapped up in a role with Laura Linney. (The actresses drunken hysteria as she reminisces about also share and alternate the smaller, piv-her foolish childhood notions, Linney is otal role of Birdie, Regina’s sister-in-law.) at once believably, affectingly sloppy and Flint-eyed and sharp-hearted, Nixon was utterly controlled. It’s difficult to imagine at her best as a fierce, clever negotiator: playing four-dimensional chess while her Linney and Nixon swapping roles, but both actresses command our trust so loutish brothers are still on checkers. An thoroughly it’s just as difficult imagining early scene in the first act, where Regina that a reversed cast would falter. uses her brothers’ ingrained misogyny to Although Birdie engages our sympa-her advantage — she doesn’t know a thing thies far more obviously than Regina about business, she insists; she’s only ne-does, she isn’t spared Hellman’s or Sulli-gotiating on behalf of her ailing, absent van’s judgment, either. After all, this husband, who doesn’t give a damn — is Southern paradise she so longs for — with mesmerizing. From the second Regina its gentility and fair-mindedness — was obliges her brothers with a gleaming, built on the backs of slaves. Her reveries Cheshire-cat smile, we know we’re watching a master manipulator at work — about her lost family plantation, Lionnet, a place where “nobody had ever lost their and, in Nixon, a master playing her. temper,” are constantly undercut by re-Less convincing are the role’s notes of minders of the slavery that propped it up, full-Southern, staircase-draping melo-not least because the play’s two black char-drama: Regina’s feuding with her hus-acters — both domestic servants, played band over the disappointments that have with complexity by Charles Turner and poisoned their marriage, or her trying to Caroline Stefanie Clay – are never far reconcile with her horrified ingénue from the action. Indeed, their stories pro-daughter (Francesca Carpanini). It’s hard vide vivid counterpoints to the Hubbard to imagine Regina caring so much about clan’s myopia. In one telling scene, the anybody’s opinion but her own. But Sulli-governess Addie (Clay) refuses Horace’s van’s production makes us feel for her offer of money in his will: anyway. When her Who, she asks, would allow brothers dismiss her, or The Little Foxes a black woman to collect on when her husband ex-Samuel J. Friedman a white man’s inheritance? ults in pulling his purse Theatre It would be easy to re-strings tighter, or when 261 West 47th Street duce The Little Foxes to a Regina disguises her 212-541-8457 good play about terrible rage with tart and toxic people. Nobody gets off sweetness, we root for scot-free in Hellman’s her to get her own back, script, or Sullivan’s staging. But in the any way she can. Desperate measures, constant dynamic juggling of our sympa-sure, but we never doubt that, for Regina, thies, The Little Foxes is something so these are desperate times. much better — and so much more affect-Part of our sympathy for Regina ing: It’s a fantastic play about flawed hu-comes from the sheer, stultifying horror of her marriage. As the estranged Horace, man beings. Spoil the grapes the foxes may, but we want to watch them do it. Thomas is almost toxically pleasant. His 55 May 10 -May 16, 2017 VILLAGE

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