When we entered the theatre we were immediately struck by the lack of any stage lighting or a show curtain; the stage is black. When the lights came up abruptly, it exposed a stage entirely covered in purple carpet. In the center was a boxed-in square archway with steps inside it leading up. Above the archway, a television screen in a picture frame which would be used imaginatively throughout the evening. Four plain, standard issue chandeliers hang overhead. An organ sits down-right partially enclosed in the wall.
Elizabeth Marvel is Regina Giddens, the sister to two brothers, the three of whom are on the verge of a large transaction that could set this southern, already well-off family up for life. To call this family dysfunctional is a little like calling Mama Rose ambitious. They add sadism to the mix as they each try to manipulate the others out of their portion of the deal. Greed appears to be a family trait handed down generation to generation with the Hubbard family. Thomas Jay Ryan is the angry Oscar Hubbard, the brother who always seems to draw the short straw and has a hair-trigger temper that he takes out on his wife. Marton Csokas is the calm, collected and conniving Ben Hubbard. Ms. Marvel is nauseating in the level of greed she achieves with this character (that’s a compliment).
Serving the Giddens family are Addie and Cal, loyal servants to a family whose relatives brazenly and flagrantly refer to people of their race as the n-word. The play takes place in a small town in Alabama; the director has chosen to set it in 1990 but it could be any time in the last 30-40 years based upon the environmental elements provided by production and costume designers Jan Versweyveld and Kevin Guyer respectively. van Hove has also chosen for the cast to not employ a southern accent. Hearing the n-word said in the minimalist environment by characters without that southern accent, who look like they would know better, makes it seem all the more poisonous. The script has the occasional “ain’t,” “don’t” and other such improper English in the script that when spoken by these characters belies their white trash underbelly.
The only characters who appear capable of love are: Regina’s ill husband Horace Giddens, played by Christopher Evan Welch; and his and Regina’s daughter Alexandra, played by Cristin Milioti. Ms. Milioti brought an intense focus to the young girl whose father is dying. There is talk of forcing her to marry her second-cousin, Oscar’s son Leo Hubbard, played by Nick Westrate. In Leo, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. He seems to have his father’s penchant for violence and greed. Birdie, Oscar’s wife, is played by Tina Benko with such emotion that your heart aches for her. Ms. Benko’s performance is tremendous.
Ms. Hellman has woven a second theme into this play, the disadvantages of being a woman, a black person or anyone not of the right class. Regina, Oscar and Ben’s father only handed his business down to his two sons and did not include his sister. It was assumed that his sister would wed for money. Regina, in a wonderfully acted scene by Ms. Benko talks about how she wound up married to Oscar when her father let the Hubbard family “take over their land, their cotton, and their daughter.” She is miserable in this forced marriage.
A modern jazz score has been utilized to heighten the tension in the play. It works effectively. Oddly, there didn’t appear to be any credit for who wrote the music in either my press release or in the Playbill.
There are a few minor things don’t ring true in transporting the play to the year 1990. It might have benefited from a bit of updating. The fact that Alexandra goes to get her father from Baltimore and is unable to notify the family that they will be arriving late doesn’t make sense. The idea of using the n-word so freely also doesn’t feel as honest in the year 1990, but perhaps that’s my own wishful sense of “liberty and justice for all.” Mr. van Hove has done a fine job of drawing amazing performances out of this talented cast. But because the set is so expansive and open, there are vast swaths of space between characters in some of these scenes. Oddly, at other times he has them huddled together like the homeless in front of a barrel fire.
New York Theatre Workshop’s selection of The Little Foxes comes at such an apropos time, a time when greed seems to be the driving force behind what has gone wrong with the world. There is one sentiment that Addi first verbalizes and it gets repeated in the play a few times by other characters “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it... Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” It reminds one of big banks and predatory lending practices and the overall erosion of the American middle class. Despite my misgivings about a couple of things that don’t transition well to 1990, van Hove has proven that Ms. Hellman’s play is timeless. This is an outstanding production of an outstanding play, don’t miss it.
The Little Foxes is running through October 31, 2010 at the New York Theatre Workshop.