The Little Foxes, a Small-Minded Revival 

The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Ivo van Hove

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes is not a great play, maybe, but it is an unstoppable bit of stage machinery, and it does have great things in it. Hellman's abiding sin as a writer was a need to see everything in black and white, but in The Little Foxes, Tallulah Bankhead brought such charisma to the role of the murderous Regina Giddens that she complicated Hellman's anti-capitalist intentions with an all-out star turn that became a theater legend. In a smaller corner of the play, Patricia Collinge broke hearts as Aunt Birdie, and her work was preserved for us in the 1941 film starring Bette Davis, who gave a controversial performance as Regina that some felt was too cold and controlled after Bankhead's fireworks. The play has had an odd life since then; there were two productions at Lincoln Center, one in the 1960s with Anne Bancroft, and one fairly recently with Stockard Channing, and both were considered failures. Elizabeth Taylor made a success of it on Broadway in the early 1980s, but no one really took that very seriously. And so Hellman's most famous play hasn't quite had a New York revival that would revitalize or re-juice it.

The Belgian director Ivo van Hove made a literal splash at New York Theatre Workshop with two radically re-imagined versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Hedda Gabler, both of which starred Elizabeth Marvel. These notorious productions were love it or hate it propositions for most audiences, and the people who hated the van Hove/Marvel collaborations mainly objected to what they did to two unquestionably great plays. The Little Foxes is several steps below the Williams and the Ibsen, and so some people, even those who hated van Hove's bathtub Desire and his messy Hedda, seem to be more willing to see what dissonances he can contrive for a text that is always flirting with being a trashy melodrama.

This van Hove rendition of The Little Foxes is the kind of thing you might see at BAM with Scandinavian actors doing Grotowski-style work on a nearly bare stage, and as such it often seems forced and unfocused in English with more inhibited American actors. Marvel has been directed to emphasize Regina's childlike nature; she does far too many ear-splitting tantrums and seems more like a Chicago-area lady boozehound caterwauling at 4am than a turn of the century Southern belle, and this is a choice, of course, but it's a choice that leads more often to self-indulgence than to true illumination of the text. Marvel certainly gets across Regina's revulsion about her past sexual duties to her hated husband Horace (Christopher Evan Welch), but, as with everything else here, this is overemphasized to the point of absurdity. As Birdie, Tina Benko is entirely wrong, much too young and beautiful and blooming, and if this miscasting is a choice, too, then it's a total failure. The Little Foxes as directed by van Hove keeps searching for something to say even though Hellman has already given him plenty to work with, and the way he cancels out all of her solid ideas with his own vague, wild fumblings finally begins to seem like the height of perversity and directorial decadence. I don't object to deconstructing classic plays, but there is no excuse for a production of even a second-rate play of the past that ignores or actively destroys the best writing in it in the service of clichéd, re-warmed Robert Wilson visuals and experimental theater acting exercises.

(photo credit: Jan Versweyveld)

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