Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is set in 1900. It premiered on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead in the lead in 1939, but it’s definitely a play for our time. After all, it shows greedy rich people doing whatever it takes to get richer. While they appear to be genteel Alabama aristocrats, most of them are as tough as nails. Toughest of all is the grasping Regina Giddens, one of the juiciest roles in American theater.
In Manhattan Theatre Club’s top-notch revival, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate as Regina. When they don’t play Regina, the actresses play the sweet, kind, alcoholic Birdie Hubbard, who actually is a Southern aristocrat. The characters may be part of the same family (by marriage), but they are polar opposites.
It’s a great challenge for these two accomplished actresses, and some audience members will no doubt see it twice to check them out in both roles. The night I attended, Linney played Regina and Nixon was Birdie. Both were outstanding.
Hellman’s three-act play boasts a well-constructed plot as well as sharply written characters. Regina’s husband Horace (Richard Thomas) is ill and recuperating at a hospital in Baltimore. Regina and her brothers, Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein), are anxious to complete a big business deal with a Chicago tycoon, Mr. Marshall (David Alford).
To get a piece of the deal, however, Regina must convince Horace to sell his bonds. They all stand to become millionaires, and Regina can’t wait to get out of their small town and move to Chicago.
Birdie, who is married to Oscar, doesn’t crave money but wants to move back to Lionnet, the plantation where she grew up and was happy. Regina sends her daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to Baltimore to bring back Horace. The last member of the family is Leo (Michael Benz), Oscar’s son, who works with him at the bank. There’s talk of Alexandra and Leo marrying. Birdie is aghast at the idea since she loves Alexandra and doesn’t think much of her ne’er-do-well son.
The dialogue still crackles. Regina gets the best lines. “I hope you die,” she tells Horace after he’s told her off and threatened to sabotage her dreams. Linney captures Regina’s ruthlessness without overdoing it. When she isn’t bossing people around, we see her silently scheming.
With her deeper voice, Linney seems better suited to the role than Nixon. But Nixon—who was wonderful in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Rabbit Hole and Wit—is good in everything she does. She’s perfect as Birdie, especially in the monologue in which she reveals her drinking problem.
Thomas looks so spry that at first it’s hard to believe him as the sickly Horace. But the actor pulls it off by slowing his walk, and pausing to catch his breath. He truly goes red in the face when he tells Regina what he thinks of her. McKean, best known for being funny in Christopher Guest movies, turns out to be just right as the sly Ben Hubbard.
Goldstein is suitably conniving as Oscar, and Benz (who played Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe) manages a credible Southern accent as the dim but ambitious Leo. Caroline Stefanie Clay is also first-rate as the maid who puts up with Regina but is devoted to Horace and Alexandra.
The always-dependable director Daniel Sullivan deserves some of the credit for the fine performances and for the pacing of this sturdy, never-boring revival. Scott Pask’s handsome set, which features Corinthian columns and an imposing staircase, is also sturdy.
If you’ve seen the 1941 Little Foxes movie, starring Bette Davis in peak form, you know that the steep staircase will play a part in the drama. Linney is at her venomous best in the climactic scene. I may have to go back to see Nixon sink her teeth into it.
The Little Foxes is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036. Ticket information is here.