Friday, September 24, 2010

Fox Skeletons

The Little Foxes
A play by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Starring Tina Benko, Marton Csokas, Lynda Gravatt, Elizabeth Marvel, Cristin Milioti, Thomas Jay Ryan, Greig Sargeant, Sanjit De Silva, Christopher Evan Welch, Nick Westrate

September 10-October 31, 2010
New York Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street

Unlike Shakespeare’s plays—which are endlessly updated, deconstructed and reconstructed but survive any desecration—Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes drips with Southern Gothic melodramatic trappings: removing those trappings reduces the play to its bare skeleton, which isn’t much, as Ivo Van Hove’s new production demonstrates.

The Little Foxes concerns the infighting Hubbard family, whose matriarch is Regina Giddens, conniving wife of sickly Horace. Regina (whose brothers Ben and Oscar inherited all of their father’s fortune) is at the mercy of her husband’s financial support, so she and her brothers scheme to swindle Horace and one another, with no worry who’s also hurt in the process—Regina’s teenage daughter Alexandra, Oscar’s wife Birdie or his grown son Leo. Evil and good rub shoulders in this luridly appealing play, and the former seem to have a better time of it.

Van Hove loves to take liberties with everything but Hellman’s text, which is left intact. His Foxes shows nothing of the Hubbard mansion, circa 1900, instead taking place on a minimal set whose walls are purple velvet. There’s an unplayed organ to one side, four chandeliers dangling from the ceiling and the all-important staircase at stage center, cut off from the rest of the house and figuratively leading nowhere. A large-screen TV above the stairs shows offstage action. There’s no furniture, so everyone leans against walls, sits on the stairs or the floor, or crouches.

Through such contrived stage business, Van Hove wants to concentrate on these frayed relationships, but he paints in primary colors: anger and anguish, disgust and selfishness pulsate in every line reading, as performers spit their lines at one another when they’re not spitting at one another, pulling someone’s hair or punching a wife in the stomach, thrice (I’m looking at you, Oscar). Reducing Hellman’s play to a physical actors’ exercise loses the exquisite subtlety with which Hellman wields her artful nastiness.

No one is able to fashion a whole character out of the bone fragments they are left with. Christopher Evan Welch, an often dazzling comic actor, plays Horace as a man whose coughing fits sound more like TB than the heart problem he has. Tina Benko’s Birdie comes off as a sleekly dressed former beauty queen, while Elizabeth Marvel plays Regina as a feminist Wall Street exec, the female Gordon Gekko—if only the context permitted such a leap.

Marvel remains a daring actress with a fierce commitment to any role, even when reduced to pounding a wall or lasciviously rubbing up against it like a teenage girl on a banister. In a last-ditch attempt to underline the proto-feminism of a pre-feminist play, Van Hove ends his Foxes with John Lennon’s song "Woman Is the Nigger of the World." One of Lennon’s most sloganeering and poseurish tunes makes a fitting coda, but not the way Van Hove intended.
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