Upfront confession: I've never particularly cared for Lillian Hellman's plays. To me they are unsubtle, cruel, obvious, and -- worst of all -- moralistic. That said, the New York Theatre Workshop production of The Little Foxes, directed by Ivo van Hove, does possess the merit of stripping the text down to its essence. We see, hear, feel the deep commitment of the characters to their fiercely hungry greed. From the moment they stride on stage, they take the space. The three Hubbard siblings -- Ben, Oscar, and Regina -- are the little foxes grown up, fighting for money and power, and licking their chops over imagined riches. There is no sub-text.
Another confession: I am a big fan of Ivo van Hove's work (loved his Hedda Gabler and The Misanthrope, both at NYTW) so I am inclined to find it effective. It's just that despite his great skill at peeling away traditional ways of presenting things -- characters, motivation, behavior -- Hellman's text (first performed on Broadway in 1939) is overall so obvious that there's not much new to reveal. It becomes mainly a question of style. By removing the furniture from the living room, van Hove forces the characters to crawl on the rugs, pound on the walls, stalk back and forth -- they are reduced to child-like rages, tantrums, and the discomfort of simply not having a couch on which to fling themselves. Van Hove also makes good use of a video camera recording off-stage action in certain scenes.
It's an edgy production with edgy acting, and if there were any depth to Hellman's characters -- which there isn't -- then it might add up to more than just a dance of warring rivalries, schemes to cheat one’s siblings (how banal), and a willingness to sacrifice spouses, children, and family retainers in the process. The few mildly nice people are weak, while the schemers are strong but not terribly bright. If you think Dallas crossed with Real House Wives of Anywhere USA you might catch the tone of this play, which revolves around a lucrative business deal to bring Northern factories to the South.
What comes into my head is a comment the writer Mary McCarthy once made about Hellman's memoirs on the Dick Cavett Show, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." A witty remark, certainly, but one that gets at some essential truth about Hellman: a certain emptiness at her center, a lack of human compassion, a tendency to falsify her own story and those of others.
I don't understand what attracted van Hove to this play, but perhaps being Flemish he is drawn to the seeming exoticism of the fallen South, located here in a small town in Alabama. He has cast the energetic and talented Elizabeth Marvel as Regina and she embodies a rather different take on this character, less of a Southern lady (like Tallulah Bankhead in the original stage production and Bette Davis in the film version) and more of a rambunctious girl gone wild. It is certainly entertaining to watch the actors bouncing off the walls (in their very chic clothes), pulling hair, and even smacking and punching each other on occasion. Their inner children are all mighty close to the surface.
But ultimately, what is revealed in The Little Foxes? That some people are incredibly greedy? Surely we knew that. That Regina would allow her extremely ill husband to literally crawl up the stairs to get his heart medicine because he won’t go along with her business plans is somehow not surprising. She's shown no concern for him, ever. She simply needs the bonds he keeps in his bank box. When he dies, she can control her destiny. That her dream is the paltry one of moving north to Chicago and dressing right with the right crowd reminds one slightly of Chekhov's three sisters and their dream of going one day to Moscow. Only they are decent human beings.
Maybe Regina is supposed to bring to mind Mrs. Madoff, fearful of being seen outside her luxury apartment with high-end shopping bags after the incarceration of Bernie. Maybe this production is supposed to speak to the current economic situation in the U.S. But that is so much more complicated than Hellman's grubby little family of foxes, where the motivations are painfully blatant, and the characters lacking in soul. Is that America? I guess it may be the way we are sometimes seen by others. And it may also be the America of so-called "reality television." I'd say "God help us," but like Stephen Hawking I'm not convinced the universe requires the existence of God. Best not to depend on the deity to save us at this moment in time. - Victoria Sullivan
(Photo: Jan Versweyveld)
The Little Foxes runs through October 31.
New York Theatre Workshop is at 79 East 4th Street.
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.