It doesn’t take a refined intellect to separate the bad characters from the good in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” The bad tend to be scheming, grasping and spiteful, and maybe mean to animals, too. The good? Less interested in getting their hands on piles of money, generally warm-spirited, and opposed to hunting poor critters for sport.

The director Daniel Sullivan’s succulent new Broadway revival of the play, a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, cannot erase its tints of both moralizing and melodrama. But it proves once again that Hellman’s 1939 drama is also redoubtably enduring entertainment, a theatrically effective indictment of human greed and its destructive power.

The novelty of the new staging resides in the casting of the two principal female characters: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are trading off in the roles of Regina Giddens, the famous central part, an unhappily married and uncomfortably ambitious Southern woman of the turn of the last century, and her sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard, also unhappily married and also uncomfortable. But poor Birdie is a battered and wilting bloom where Regina is the proverbial steel magnolia.

The dual casting inevitably invites contrast-and-compare evaluation, but it should be said up front that both actors give rewarding performances in both roles. What’s more: Sullivan’s production has been cast in such depth that even the formidable leading ladies, each worth watching in pretty much anything, are by no means the whole show.

In a season short on first-rate Broadway play revivals, Sullivan’s crackerjack production shines with professional polish and acting of sharp intelligence and theatrical acuity. The play’s more delicate veins of humor and pathos are mined with as much authority as the overt drama on the surface: the cut-and-thrust between Regina and her equally money-lustful brothers, Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein), and Regina’s escalating battle with her noble husband, the ailing, heart-troubled (in many senses) Horace Giddens, played by the terrific Richard Thomas, in one of this veteran actor’s strongest stage performances. (The production is sumptuously designed, too, with Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Scott Pask’s deluxe, slightly going-to-seed set, providing an old-fashioned eyeful.)

Although she has portrayed a wide array of characters in her film, stage and television career, Linney is perhaps more naturally cast as Regina, whose scheme to win riches by finagling her husband into joining her brothers in investing in a cotton mill drives the narrative. Linney’s Regina casts a below-freezing spell that makes you shiver in your seat, so powerfully discernible is the force of her malignant, calculating will. When she is crossed, her Regina’s voice could scratch glass, and her eyes are fully armed with quivers of poisoned darts. But she can nonetheless turn a light on inside her normally glacial beauty, and slather on the flirtatious charm when she’s sweet-talking Mr. Marshall (a courtly David Alford), the northern businessman whom Regina and her brothers are trying to cut a deal with.

Nixon is a warmer stage presence. We half believe her Regina when she bustles to welcome Horace home with gentle words of love after he returns from five months in a sanatorium, although we know she has sent their daughter, Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), to hustle him home — heart trouble be damned — so that he can pony up the money for the deal she and her brothers have hatched. Nixon’s Regina is at her unnerving best when she unsheathes her claws, playing with her brothers like a cat batting around a toy, a placid smile spreading across her face, when she gains the upper hand.

Nixon is the more snug fit for the role of the fluttering Birdie, the harassed but eternally good-natured wife of the abusive Oscar. Pitiable and quailing from her first entrance, Nixon’s Birdie has moist eyes, a moist, pliant heart and probably chronically moist palms, too, so worn down and terrified is she of the cruelty of her treatment at the hands of Oscar.

Linney’s Birdie is more forceful, at least at first, with the vestiges of the pride in her genteel Southern upbringing giving her the spirit to believe that Mr. Marshall might actually find her engaging. At least until a few brutally dismissive words from Oscar sends her scuttling into the corner of the parlor, like a child punished in the schoolroom. Both Linney and Nixon give marvelously touching readings of Birdie’s final monologue — the play’s single most affecting passage, particularly here — in which, under the influence of elderberry wine, she lays bare the ravaged heart she keeps hidden.

Thomas, as noted before, is ferociously good as Horace. Although he has been weakened by ill health, Horace’s absence from the poisonous atmosphere of his home has clarified his mind and energized his spirit. Thomas’s beautifully nuanced performance reveals the new-found strength he has marshaled to fight their depredations. But he has retained the staunch moral fiber that makes him so tenderly sympathetic to Birdie, to the family’s servants Addie and Cal — played with terrific grit and sly humor by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner — and to his daughter. The simmering Carpanini imbues Alexandra with a strong sense of justice inherited from her father, but also a will no less intransigent than her mother’s.

As Ben, who sizes up just about everyone (including himself) with a savvy eye, McKean underscores the character’s darkly sardonic humor, and his barely concealed contempt for the less astute Oscar and his feckless son, Leo. As Oscar, Goldstein offers a repellent portrait of the bullied younger brother who in turn bullies the weaker. Michael Benz’s dim-witted Leo is all awkward elbows, dropping bricks into the negotiations between his elders at regular intervals.

Despite its enduring popularity, “The Little Foxes” probably does not rank among the greatest of American plays. But with its vivid portrait of a family trampling all over good manners and upright morals in order to maximize their, er, net worth, it might be seen as a play peculiarly suited to the current national moment. In a culminating speech from Ben, he reflects with easy equanimity on the future in store for the likes of the Hubbards.

“The century’s turning,” he says to Regina. “The world is open. Open for people like you and me… There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day.”

An audible murmur rippled through the theater at both performances I saw. It was not a murmur of pleasure. 

“The Little Foxes” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on April 19, 2017.
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club (Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director; Barry Grove, Executive Producer)
Written by Lillian Hellman; Directed by Daniel Sullivan; Assistant Director: Ann Noling; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson; Make-Up Design by Tommy Kurzman
General Manager: Florie Seery; Company Manager: Robert Carroll; MTC Director of Production: Joshua Helman; Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris; Stage Manager: Denise Yaney
Cast: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas, David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

 

Photo credit: Joan Marcus