AN AMERICAN FAMILY
"The Little Foxes" by Lillian Hellman. Adapted and directed by Ivo van Hove.
Thibaud Delpeut, dramaturg.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Sept. 10 - Oct. 31, 2010.
Wed. - Sat. 8:00, Tues. and Sun. 7 PM, Sat. matinee at 3 PM, Sun. at 2 PM.
Seats: $70-20. Tickets and information at -460-5475, www.nytw.org or http://www.tickets.ticketcentral.com.
Can we trust the title? Is this production at the New York Theatre Workshop really Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes"? The costumes are sleek and sophisticated, without a hint of turn-of-the-century fashion. The Southern accents and manner are absent. Alexandra, Regina's daughter, mentions Leo's beating the carriage horse on the way to the station, but when Zan leaves her mother's home, she heads to the airport. And even more astonishing, Mr. Marshall (Sanjit de Silva), the businessman from Chicago whom the Hubbards are courting is decidedly dark skinned.
Yet Lillian Hellman would have loved Ivo van Hove's production. It's more on point than any I have ever seen. It sharpens the conflicts. It clarifies the issues. And it is high drama, engaging all the way. Melodrama spills over into tragedy. Director van Hove has tweaked the characters. He has inserted small, perfect additions. The best is when we observe Oscar, standing near the wings, stomach punching Birdie (Tina Benko), his beautiful wife, over and over again, ratcheting up the abuse. The play is far stronger for that silent choreography. The classic has become just slightly unfamiliar, filled with the unexpected. In other word, it has been transformed into living theatre again -- as it was in its premiere. This is an important production.
The themes are greed and thwarted dreams. Ben (Marton Csokas) and Oscar Hubbard (Thomas Jay Ryan) are shopkeepers who have grown rich by overcharging their black clientele. Mr. Marshall has offered the brothers partnerships in a local cotton factory he plans to build in exchange for seed money. This is their chance to secure the elusive fortunes that they dream of. After pooling their resources though, they find they are short, so they turn to their sister Regina Giddens (Elizabeth Marvel), whose husband, Horace (Christopher Evan Welch), is a banker. He is recovering from a heart attack in a Baltimore hospital. Regina negotiates 40% of the profits for her third of the investment, but Horace refuses to back the plan.
Everyone is desperate. Leo (Nick Westrate), Regina's shifty nephew "borrows" Horace's bonds from the bank. When Horace discovers the ploy, he refuses to file charges. Regina has been cut out of the spoils. In a heated dispute, Regina withholds his heart medicine. After his death, Regina renegotiates for 75% of the profits by threatening to call the sheriff on the Hubbards. She is a ruthless closer, determined to live free in Chicago with her teenage daughter and escape the brutal male domination. But Zan (Cristin Milioti), who adored her father, accuses her of murder and departs.
The play is set in a large minimalist set by Jan Versweyveld with walls and floor in a dark velvety plum. It is seductively lush. Modern chandeliers hang from the flies. Center stage is a floor-to-ceiling structure -- something like a huge fireplace. Through the cut out area we can see the lower half of the staircase to the second floor, where Horace crawls, trying to get his medicine. Above the stairs, on the façade of the structure, is a monitor where off silent, off-stage scenes unfold; they are visual elaborations of the text.
Like time, space too is malleable, a function of the emotional intensity of the characters. The stage is both public and intimate. Regina and Ben battle -- at times with hair pulling and head banging, yet they remain intimate and connected even when they sit on opposite ends of the stage. When Zan accuses her mother of murder, although they are within a hand's touch, there are miles between them. As the family clusters together for a postprandial chat, they occupy only half the room but the space seems public. As the scenes unfold, the stage dilates and contracts as though there were multiple rooms.
The performances are all brilliantly realized, but especially those of the weaker characters. They seem closest to Van Hove's imagination. No longer flighty and pathetic, Birdie, Oscar's wife, is a stunning blond in a slim red gown. Later when Oscar berates her for leaving her house in her robe, she is wearing not the frumpy housedress usually given her, but a short, red silk robe that shows off her long legs. She is a tragic figure: a woman of pulchritude and charm wedded to a snivelling bully.
Zan too is changed from the naïve schoolgirl Hellman wrote -- one who is usually acted as pure saccharine. This Zan begins as a bewildered teen whose dad is ill to become one of the Furies, spitting at her mother in the last scene. She brings home the Greek tragic elements in the production and offers us proportion; greed is melodramatic, murder is another story. The stakes has been raised by both the plot and the staging: a chilling and effective closing device. Addie (Lynda Gravatt) and Cal (Greig Sargeant) , the black servants who are critical observers, emerge from their background roles like a Greek chorus.
Elizabeth Marvel is an unforgettable Regina, striking in her long black gown and pearls, sophisticated in her short suit skirt and spikes, and a callous fishwife at moments of stress. Her range of emotions, her drive, and her rage lift her from the melodramatic plot. We can feel her desperation to escape the South. Slowly she dominates the space and the men in her life who have held her back.
Ivo van Hove is a director's director. In "The Little Foxes" at New York Theatre Workshop, his imagination serves and enhances the script. Every element of theatre is tapped to expose the raw wounds of the characters' obstructed desires and defeats.