My review of Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate roles
Posted by: jesse21 01:23 pm EDT 04/19/17


Seeing the classy revival of Lillian Hellman’s melodrama The Little Foxes demonstrates again how entertaining this classic thriller can be, especially when it is so well-cast and precisely directed by Daniel Sullivan.

In its fourth Broadway revival, this production from the Manhattan Theatre Club, opening tonight at Broadway's Friedman Theatre, is blessedly straightforward with a detailed realistic set by Scott Pask, 1900-period costumes by Jane Greenwood and, most importantly, Ms. Hellman’s crackling dialogue delivered to ensure the audience hangs on every word.

While no egomaniacal director has molested the play into something it never intended to (or can) be, there is indeed a marketing gimmick involved. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the plum roles of the bitchy Regina Giddens and the mousy Birdie Hubbard. At tonight's opening, Ms. Linney will be Regina and Ms. Nixon will be Birdie which is the casting option I saw last week. For end-of-season award contention, this places Ms. Linney in the lead actress category and Ms. Nixon in the featured.

The Little Foxes is not exactly subtle. The good characters are saints, the bad, devils. And the message is simple; greed and the lust for power corrupt. But, oh, what a story!

For relating the plot summary without spoilers, I like the economical IMBd entry for the film version, so I will simply amend it a bit to also name the cast members: “The ruthless, moneyed Hubbard clan lives in, and poisons, their part of the deep South at the turn of the 20th century. Regina Giddens (Laura Linney) née Hubbard has her daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) under her thumb. Mrs. Giddens is estranged from her husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who is convalescing in Baltimore and suffers from a terminal illness. But she needs him home, and will manipulate her daughter to help bring him back. She has a sneaky business deal with Chicago businessman Mr. Marshall (David Alford) that she's cooking up with her two elder brothers, Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Ben (Michael McKean) Hubbard. Oscar has a flighty, unhappy wife Birdie (Cynthia Nixon) and a dishonest worm of a son Leo (Michael Benz). Will the daughter have to marry this contemptible cousin? Who will she grow up to be - her mother or her aunt? Or can she escape the fate of both?” Plus there are roles for two black servants: Cal (Charles Turner) and a particularly good one for the housekeeper Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay).

The play. starring Tallulah Bankhead as Regina, was a hit the first time around in 1939. The 1941 movie, the version likely to be familiar to theatergoers today, offered a mean Bette Davis and an unforgettable death scene on a grand staircase for her husband Horace, played by Herbert Marshall. It was nominated for nine Oscars but won none. Notable revivals were the 1967 Mike Nichols production with Anne Bancroft and the 1981 production with Elizabeth Taylor, who received great notices for her Regina, and Maureen Stapleton as Birdie.

This time around, Laura Linney portrays the poised and attractive Regina. She appropriately starts out by being all charm but also allows the audience in on suspecting her real character which is chillingly evil by the time the third act rolls around. Regina wants to be boss of a cotton-mill and she’ll double-cross her brothers, use her daughter as bait in an arranged marriage and even kill her ill husband if she must to get what she wants. One interesting aspect of her performance is the monologue where she explains how her brothers Oscar and Ben had all the advantages because they are men. The “glass ceiling” aspects of her speech seemed particularly relevant to our time, dramatizing the underpinnings for Regina’s revenge far more than I recall from previous productions.

Cynthia Nixon’s gentle, alcohol-dependent southern belle is deeply touching, reaching its zenith in the scene where Birdie opens up to declare she hasn’t had “one whole day of happiness in 22 years.” Birdie is meant to engage the audience’s sympathy and Ms. Nixon is so good at it that, at the end of her big monologue, you feel like walking up on stage to give her a hug.

I was really impressed with Richard Thomas’s kind and whip-smart Horace. Well, the whole cast is superb and that includes the three actors making their Broadway debuts: David Alford, Michael Benz and Francesca Carpanini.

Daniel Sullivan directs his actors admirably and, in general, aims to restrain the melodrama from going overboard to possibly give the play more respectability as a serious twentieth-century drama than it has previously had. Very tasteful indeed, and it worked for me except for the big scene where Horace has the heart attack and Regina stands by. His concept here fits the tone of his production but robs the audience of relishing a ghoulish few minutes.

But, the play is still supremely entertaining. So much so that I plan to return in June to see the actresses switch roles. By the way, both stars have a history with MTC. Ms. Linney in 2010 with Time Stands Still and in 2004 with Sight Unseen. Ms. Nixon starred in MTC’s Wit in 2012 and Rabbit Hole in 2006.

Speaking of Manhattan Theatre Club, hats off to them for a great season in their Broadway home with three winners in a row: Heisenberg, Jitney and now The Little Foxes.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

- Jesse


  • Photos: production stills.

  • Video:See Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon reversing roles with the same scene (Times 1:51 & 1:48).

  • Meet the Cast: bios.

  • Article: ‘The Little Foxes’: A Reconsideration by Jason Zinoman, The New York Times, 3-22-2017.

  • Article: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon alternate roles in ‘Little Foxes’ by Linda Winer, Newsday, 3-31-2017.

  • THE LITTLE FOXES opens Wednesday, April 19, 2017, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City. A Manhattan Theatre Club production. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions. Act I: 36 minutes. Act II: 41 minutes. Act III: 52 minutes. Limited engagement. Tickets currently on sale through June 18, 2017. Link to website.


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