BWW Review: Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney Alternate Roles in Lillian Hellman's Fascinating THE LITTLE FOXES
With her throaty elegance, sharp comic bite and aggressively sexual allure, Tallulah Bankhead quickly earned a loyal following when she appeared in her first five Broadway plays in the years between 1918 and 1922. Unfortunately, her performances were often the only positive attraction and each of the quintet closed very quickly.
The outlook wasn't much brighter when, after hiatuses on the West End and in Hollywood, Bankhead returned to Times Square in 1933 to star in seven flops in a row.
It took Lillian Hellman's 1939 Southern Gothic melodrama, The Little Foxes, to properly showcased the star in a hit vehicle worthy of her talent. As Alabama belle Regina Giddens, Bankhead's eccentricities, played for realism, helped her character stand out in a society where women were preferred to remain in the background.
Though Regina is at the center of the backstabbing family drama, Hellman's most memorable writing in the play is an extraordinary monologue for the supporting character of her sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard. In the third act, with the encouragement that comes from too much elderberry wine, Birdie vents her frustration at being expected to accept the subservient role of agreeable wife, and the occasional slaps from her husband that accompany the honor.
So in director Daniel Sullivan's classically mounted revival, designed with stately beauty by Scott Pask (set), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Justin Townsend (lights), Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney alternate performances in the two plum roles.
The year is 1900 and the issue at hand is that Regina's brothers Ben (crusty Michael McKean) and Oscar (vigorous and brutish Darren Goldstein) have cut a deal which would allow them controlling shares of a cotton mill, but they require more money, preferably from Regina, to secure it.
As a woman, Regina's legal rights are few, but she also knows that her siblings would prefer to not have to deal with a stranger as a partner, giving her a certain degree of negotiating power. But legally, the money has to come from her sickly husband, Horace, currently hospitalized in Baltimore.
Oscar married the alcoholic Birdie for her family's money, and isn't above hitting her to keep her in line. They have a son, Leo (good job by Michael Benz as a well-groomed, privileged jerk) and part of the negotiations involve the suggestion to have him marry Regina's daughter Alexandra (dutiful Francesca Carpanini).
When Horace finally arrives home, he's played with genial warmth by Richard Thomas. Knowing he may not have long to live, Horace has his own plans about what to do with his money and they do not favor Regina. All of the percolating tension in the first two acts property boils over in the third.
Nixon's Regina may suggest to some what Bankhead may have been like in the role. Her regal bearing is paired with a sharp-tongued haughtiness. There's a victorious glow about her face every time she appears to have conquered the patriarchy that foolishly tries to contain her. Linney's Regina is just as crafty, but her edges are softer as she battles using more traditionally feminine appeal.
As Birdie, Linney makes a showstopper out of her third act monologue, but Nixon's presence in the role is more tragic, as her character forces smiles and charm while being abused.
It's not a competition, of course, and personal taste will come into play as to which combination audience members will prefer. Fortunately, The Little Foxes is a fascinating play and Sullivan's superb production is easily worth a second visit.