Perhaps the most shocking aspect of provocateur Ivo van Hove’s slick remounting of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is that it really isn’t that shocking. The man who allowed Hedda Gabler to be humiliated by a flood of tomato juice and employed a hot dog and Hershey’s syrup to illuminate The Misanthrope turns almost cuddly in comparison this time around. Sure, a woman gets dramatically socked in the gut three times in a row and another dry humps a wall, but the closest it gets to beverages and condiments is a mimed sip of good ’ol Southern java. This would seem to be a criticism, and even though this critic truly craved some of van Hove’s signature eyebrow-raisers (it’s a melodrama, guy!), it’s quickly discerned that Hellman’s stinging indictment of a plantation-owning family’s greed (”[The] people who raped the Earth, and those who stood around and watched them do it”) really needs no trickery at all to remain a grabber.
Taking place in what appears to be a square, purple velvet womb, with an embedded staircase right in the middle, which also contains an LCD screen on which we can view the actions of off-stage characters, Hellman’s semi-autobiographical tale has been stripped of its Suh-thun roots and transformed into clipped, elegantly attired vipers. Decked out in Kevin Guyer’s delectable costumes on scenic designer Jan Versweyveld’s Lynchian playpen (people literally converse in circles on it), the machinations of Regina Giddens (Elizabeth Marvel) and her raptor-like siblings (Marton Csokas and Thomas Jay Ryan) and nephew (Nick Westrate) suggest Enron’s players if they argued in estates rather than boardrooms.
The Little Foxes is an invitation to grandstanding for most performers, and perhaps the shrewdest decision of all was to have some of the most heated confrontations in the play become models of nearly faint micro-communication. Knowing that Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and Elizabeth Taylor have tackled Regina might amp up the you-go-girl contingent looking for campy frills, but Marvel—as resourceful as ever—finds a dry reserve to this woman that most actresses would skip over in favor of bravado. It’s hardly the bravest performance she’s ever given, even in this very same space, but her keen intelligence is never to be overlooked.
It helps that Marvel is surrounded by a smartly mismatched ensemble (very few of whom ever seem the least bit Southern even in physicality—sometimes a detriment given how often Hellman explicitly mentions their backgrounds), but create dimensions one rarely sees in these roles. Christopher Evan Welch—as Regina’s compassionate, dying spouse—finds hushed grace notes in nearly every scene he’s in, Csokas and Ryan are fitfully slanted (Westrate’s blank-stared goon is fun too…when he manages to be audible), and Tina Benko’s bold, refreshingly carnal take on alcoholic sad-sack Birdie nearly reinvents the role right in front of you.
When the night has concluded, it’s hard to say one has been provided much more insight into Hellman’s writing than, say, Peccadillo Theater Company’s superb remounting of Hellman’s little-seen and excellent prequel to The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, just mere months ago, staged for probably a fraction of van Hove’s catchy production. But as they say, one good turn deserves another, and any New York season that gives us Hellman times two is a right one indeed.
The Little Foxes is now playing at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th St.) in New York City through October 31.