Lillian Hellman’s breakneck melodrama The Little Foxes was written in 1939 on the Depression plan. It has one set, no more characters than it can use, and just enough plot to make it go. Yet go it does, busily slapping down shibboleths and exposing hypocrisies in a rich white Southern family circa 1900. These are the Hubbards, two brothers and a sister, nouveau riches who intend (as a memorable image in the play has it) to eat the world and all the people in it. But first they must decide how they’ll divide the dish.
One of the things that the Manhattan Theater Club’s good-enough revival, directed by Daniel Sullivan, gets right is the stock-ticker rhythm of the siblings’ machinations. At first the three are presumed equals in a deal that will make them millions by bringing the operations of a northern cotton mill to their fields. But Ben and Oscar, being sons, can draw on inherited savings to buy their one-third shares in the $225,000 investment. Regina, having received the customary nothing from their father, must get her third from her husband, Horace, who’s wealthy enough but unwell and unwilling. That unfairness does not make Regina a very sympathetic character as she plots her way around every obstacle, including Horace’s inconvenient existence, to get what she wants. In the end it is far more than 33 percent.
The play isn’t subtle; it’s just delicious. Oscar says things like “You are talking very big tonight!” and Regina answers with lines like “Am I? Well, you should know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t be asking for things I didn’t think I could get.” The secondary roles are narrowly crafted to provide contrast to the quick-witted rapaciousness of the main ones: Oscar’s wife, Birdie, is a kindly, damaged daughter of the aristocracy; their son, Leo, an amoral doofus; the servant Addie, formerly a Hubbard family slave, a font of goodness and wisdom. Though this last is a stereotype, the others aren’t much less so, and Hellman’s treatment of the black characters — there is also a male servant, Cal — is as sophisticated as you would expect from a liberal of her era. That is, she says the right things but still sees their highest function, dramatically and otherwise, as serving the white characters’ agendas.
Nevertheless, the acting opportunities are juicy from top to bottom — and Caroline Stefanie Clay, as Addie, gives the best-modulated performance of all, keeping much of what she knows inside. At the top, the production has come up with the gimmick of having its headliners, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, alternate as Regina and Birdie. It’s an odd notion as, for good reason, the sisters-in-law are normally cast with very different types of actresses: Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton in the 1981 revival, Stockard Channing and Frances Conroy in 1997. In any case, if you see the show only once, as I did, you won’t be able to compare. But my cast — Linney as Regina, Nixon as Birdie — suggested that the switch would not materially alter the effect of the production, which is solid but not transcendent for reasons beyond the two women’s performances. For the record, though, Nixon is spot-on, and very moving, as the first victim of the family’s ruthlessness and its voice of ineffectual goodness. (Her face seems lit from within by alcohol, from without by tears.) Linney, in a copper wig, has further to go to get beneath Regina’s top note of steeliness; to be disarmed by her, as the Northern mill owner is in the first act, you must never have seen a seething snake before.
It’s largely in the calibration of the men’s roles that the production falters. The aggressively likable Richard Thomas is especially odd casting for the gruff Horace, whose illness is meant to have reformed him; it’s hard to believe that a man so pleasant could ever have tolerated Regina, let alone married her. And though Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein, as the brothers Ben and Oscar, are just fine as far as the looks and line readings go, under Sullivan’s somewhat grandstanding direction their pacing and affect suggest something too close to comedy. Nothing against comedy, but if you let some of the setup of The Little Foxes play as sitcom, you’re not going to be able to nail down the horror and tragedy of the payoff. This production gets laughs well past the time they are wanted.
Hellman shares the blame for that. Her interest in the consequences of bad behavior tapers significantly once the men are knocked down a peg. Perhaps that’s because the play, suggested primarily by events in her Alabama family, is evidently also based on her own experience of disinheritance by the patriarchy. So although as a dramatist she knows that Regina cannot be allowed to achieve her victory unscathed, as a moralist she just isn’t very interested in punishing the woman who won because she was smarter and tougher. You can feel the play snuffling around for some kind of palatable comeuppance; the result — a falling-out in the last beat with her daughter, Alexandra — is never convincing, and is less than usually so here, where the prior connection between them is null.
What remains powerfully effective, and what Sullivan’s handsome production gets right, is Hellman’s dissection of (and shocking prescience about) the way a systemic lack of power can turn into manipulative fury. Hellman had seen it before in the toxic capitalism that led to the Depression and did not imagine it would disappear anytime soon from the human repertoire of injustice. After all, she took her title — courtesy of Dorothy Parker — from the Song of Solomon’s image of little foxes that “spoil the vines” and the tender grapes thereon. The spoiling instinct, she demonstrates, is a part of nature, never to be stamped out. And so even though Regina outwits her brothers, Ben is not discouraged: “After all, this is just the beginning,” he says. “There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day.”
That’s still a swift kick in the American grits, and worth the price of admission, whichever Regina is proving him right.
The Little Foxes is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through June 18.