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Theatre in Review: The Little Foxes (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Laura Linney (as Regina), Cynthia Nixon (as Birdie). Photo: Joan Marcus

Name your poison: Laura Linney or Cynthia Nixon? I mean this in the nicest possible way. Whichever version of The Little Foxes you attend, you are in for a memorable time. As you probably know, the actresses are alternating in the roles of Regina, the most avaricious (and that's saying something) member of the Hubbard clan, and Birdie, the tippling, abused, desperately lonely wife of Oscar Hubbard, Regina's brother.

As Regina, Linney brings the fire and Nixon, the ice. The Hubbards have risen to a certain level of wealth in the postbellum South, cheating whenever possible and always, always exploiting the poor -- and now they are about to do the deal of a lifetime, financing the construction of a cotton mill in their home town. Regina's siblings, Ben and Oscar, are each ready with a third of the money. Regina needs the participation of her ailing husband, Horace, and if she has to drag him, half-dead, back from a hospital in Baltimore, she will do it. Linney's Regina is positively giddy at the prospect of having millions in the bank. Addressing Birdie, she says, "You know what I've always said when people told me we were rich. I've always said you should be a negra or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?" Linney underscores this line with a dismissive gesture that tosses away tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars like so much trash.

And oh, how Linney's Regina smiles: It's only the thinnest imitation of real warmth, of course, but watch how deftly she wields it when cutting herself a bigger percentage, or how she deploys it to get her daughter, Alexandra, to retrieve Horace, against doctor's orders. It is especially intense when charming Marshall, the businessman from Chicago who will finance the Hubbards' mill: Regina wants nothing more than to start over in the Windy City, and, as she notes, Marshall is a lonely man who never sees his wife. Most people have smiles that warm; this Regina has a smile that devours.

When Horace returns home, just this side of the grave yet intent on thwarting Regina's plans as long as he draws breath, Linney uncorks an unbridled fury that makes you realize exactly how much emotion -- need mixed with anger sprinkled with a lifetime of frustration -- she has held back for so long. She hurls one of the great curtain lines in the American theatre ("I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die."), then falls into a chair, her face a death mask of resentment.

Nixon's Regina is far more composed, withholding even. Pretending that high finance is too much for her pretty little head, she speaks slowly and with deliberation before arriving at the satisfactory conclusion she had in mind all along. She appears to be eyeing everyone in the room, assessing them for their value to her, planning her next chess move. Told by Ben to try smiling, she produces a beam that freezes with its insincerity. And when Horace suffers a heart attack in front of her, she relaxes into her chair and watches him gasp for air with the detachment of a scientist observing a particularly interesting specimen.

The actresses' interpretations of Birdie are also strikingly different. Nixon gives her a spectral quality; she speaks nervously, tentatively, praying that someone will listen to what she has to say. (The underlying tension in Birdie's first scene, in which she can't stop herself from rattling on, even though it is perfectly clear that her chatter will end in humiliation or something worse, is superbly realized in Daniel Sullivan's production.) And when, in the third act, under the influence of a couple of glasses of elderberry wine too many, she lays bare a lifetime of lovelessness -- saying out loud, for the first time, that her so-called "headaches" are the result of her many discreet wine benders -- the effect is heartbreaking.

Linney gives Birdie a physical awkwardness that can be hard to watch. She never picks something up; she lunges at it. Notice how, during after-dinner drinks, Linney maneuvers herself next to the wine decanter, empties her glass and fills it again, quickly, before anyone notices. It's very possible, even likely, that Nixon does the same bit of business, but Linney makes you see it in all its pathos and desperation. And, in Act III, the actress makes your realize that Birdie drinks to dilute the terrible rage -- her disgust at Oscar and their wastrel son, Leo -- that has corroded her spirit; when she grabs Alexandra and warns her that if she doesn't escape she will end up in the same terrible place, the effect is hair-raising.

I don't want to suggest that Linney and Nixon, as good as they are, are the only attractions in this superlative revival. Richard Thomas is a sterling Horace, holding onto life by a thread, yet able to break into a sunny smile at the thought of doing Regina out of her plans. Watching him on the staircase, condemning her with the ferocity of a Biblical prophet, you wonder if his weakened frame will give out before he finishes. Michael McKean is a study in suave villainy as Ben, slipping into a chuckle after Regina has fleeced him, saying, "You and I aren't sour people," and making clear that this isn't the last round, by any stretch of the imagination. Darren Goldstein simmers effectively as Oscar, the dimmest of his generation of Hubbards, whose practiced cruelty against Birdie -- including vicious, surreptitious slap in the face -- evokes gasps from the audience. Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner are first-rate as Addie and Cal, the servants who see everything and cannot help being drawn into the family's machinations.

Everything else about Sullivan's production is first-class, including Scott Pask's green-and-cream interior, which gives the lie to Regina's insistence that she doesn't have enough money; Jane Greenwood's costumes, including a bottle-green ensemble that makes Regina look like a bird of prey; Justin Townsend's lighting, which ranges from a shadowy, lamplit evening look to a radiant sunny morning look; and Fitz Patton's sound design, which renders a handful of necessary effects with skill and discretion.

The Little Foxes is often dismissed as an old-fashioned melodrama, not fit to occupy the same shelf with big boys like Miller, O'Neill, and Williams. Then someone stages it, meticulously and for real, and it's perfectly clear that playwright Lillian Hellman understood something about American society -- the hunger for money and the will to power -- that was troubling in 1900, when the play is set, and remains troubling today. Sullivan sums it up in the production's stark final image: Alexandra (a very good Francesca Carpanini), seated in Regina's chair, stares coldly into the distance, watched from the shadows by Addie, while Regina stands on the staircase, staring up at the second floor, where Horace's body lies. Alexandra, in a voice devoid of sympathy, asks, "Are you afraid, Mama?" If she isn't, she certainly has reason to be. -- David Barbour

(26 April 2017)

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