By Lillian Hellman
In a post-Civil War southern community there is nothing more important than money and power to Regina Giddens. In fact, she will stop at nothing to have them. In order to join her equally ruthless brothers in a scheme that is sure to gain her wealth and power she uses her young, naïve daughter to fetch her estranged, ailing husband who is living elsewhere. When she cannot convince her husband to give her the money, she sets forward a cunning plan; which escalates to the ultimate price once she realizes her brothers intend to swindle her as well.
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center.
Stockard Channing (Regina Giddens), Ethel Ayler (Addie), Charles Turner (Cal), Frances Conroy (Birdie Hubbard), Brian Kerwin (Oscar Hubbard), Frederick Weller (Leo Hubbard), Richard E. Council (William Marshall), Brian Murray (Benjamin Hubbard), Jennifer Dundas (Alexandra Giddens) and Kenneth Welsh (Horace Giddens)
Freud Strays Into a Well-Furnished
Foxes' Den Down South
By BEN BRANTLEY
New York Times, April 28, 1997
So what if she lies, cheats, extorts and kills? Few heroines of American theater are half as much fun as Regina Giddens, an abiding testament to what's so good about being bad in the world of fiction. Her amoral efficiency in cutting through blood ties and marital bonds to secure control of her family's business in the turn-of-the-century South sustains Lillian Hellman's ''Little Foxes'' as one of the most enjoyably chilling chapters in the history of melodrama.
Why, then, does the new Lincoln Center production of Hellman's 1939 classic seem hellbent on thwarting the work's most essential pleasure? As portrayed by Stockard Channing, an actress who would seem incapable of not winning over an audience, mean old, coldblooded Regina emerges as a jittery, fluttery neurotic who couldn't bluff her way through a hand of poker, much less triumph in the higher-stakes games being played in this morality tale of capitalist greed and sibling rivalry.
If ''The Little Foxes'' is about the corrupting powers of wealth, the director Jack O'Brien's interpretation of the play, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is more a cautionary essay on the foolish squandering of artistic riches. It is blessed with a cast that includes some of New York's finest actors, a luxurious, top-of-the line set and costumes by John Lee Beatty and Jane Greenwood, and a play about as close to foolproof as drama gets.
Moreover, the very fact that it comes out of Lincoln Center seemed to mark the production as one of the season's few sure things. After all, the center recently gave New York nigh-perfect revivals of two comparably well-upholstered, well-built works, ''The Heiress'' and ''A Delicate Balance.''
Well, there's a grim lesson to be learned here about great expectations. This ''Foxes'' is so wildly miscast and so haplessly misconceived that it is hard to figure out exactly what its creators had in mind.
One might start by remembering that Hellman once said she was amazed that people took her squabbling, mercenary foxes so seriously; that she had really intended the play to be a dark comedy. Perhaps that's what Mr. O'Brien had in mind in having his actors go for easy laughs as often as possible. And in reinventing the antagonists onstage as less a clan of determined, wicked schemers than a group of antic, childish bumblers, blending ''The Little Foxes'' with ''The Little Rascals.''
He has also appeared to steer Ms. Channing, as one of three siblings poised to establish a cotton business that will make them all rich as Croesus, into an oddly inward-looking, uneasy performance. Certainly, there are viable alternatives to the maleficent, icy creature whom Bette Davis (following Tallulah Bankhead's cue in the original stage production) portrayed in William Wyler's acclaimed film. Ms. Channing's, however, is not one of them.
From the outset, this Regina is a welter of exposed nerves. She paces, fidgets and grimaces, snapping her neck and rolling her eyes as her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard (Brian Murray and Brian Kerwin), gleefully seal the all-important business deal with their partner-to-be from the North (Richard E. Council).
She neither charms nor commands as she has to here. And as the play progresses, with the return of Regina's ailing, moralistic husband, Horace (Kenneth Welsh), she seems less to grow in assured, demonic power than simply, at moments, to unravel. This is as visibly dysfunctional a Regina as you're ever likely to get. There's evidence of a bad conscience gnawing away inside (most obviously and bizarrely when Regina is forced to what is effectively murder). And you're by no means convinced that the foxes evoked by the biblical passage quoted in the play will indeed conquer.
But Hellman's drama is not primarily about psychology, nor for that matter the sociology of a shattered South in transition. It's an expertly constructed, grippingly paced plot machine that pits good against evil and lets evil win.
Bringing confused Freudian shadings to Regina's loveless relationship with her husband and overplaying her memories of childhood unhappiness hardly serves the work's crackerjack machinery. Deep motivation isn't the issue here, any more than Shakespeare's hunchback king's rejection by his mother is the springboard of ''Richard III.''
Deprived of a centered Regina, the whole production seems lost in space, a feeling compounded by the intimidating scale of Mr. Beatty's representation of the Giddenses' living room. The staircase (which serves a crucial plot function) is longer and steeper than that of ''Sunset Boulevard.'' And the expansiveness of the lavish central room turns the production's blocking into an athletic event. This may be a comment on the excesses of the nouveaux riches. But is one really meant to think of the Beverly Hillbillies, wandering giddily through their palatial new mansion? Ms. Channing, Mr. Kerwin and Mr. Murray (a fine actor whose dangerous penchant for mugging is very evident here) all bring a sort of Southern cracker crudeness to their accents and gestures.
The casting is even more seriously imbalanced than the set. As Oscar's alcoholic, aristocratic wife, Birdie, the gentle soul trampled by Hubbardism, Frances Conroy registers as stronger and louder than any of Birdie's kin. (It's hard to pity her when you feel she could easily deck the weasly Oscar.) And Jennifer Dundas, as Regina's ''sugar water'' daughter, is a bustling, take-charge sort of girl who never seems in any real danger.
Mr. Welsh, Mr. Kerwin and Frederick Weller, as Oscar and Birdie's stupid son, give more measured, credible performances. But it's Ethel Ayler, as Addie, Regina's long-suffering, all-observing maid, who exudes the most confident, magnetic presence. Now she has the smarts and authority to run that new business. If the Hubbards don't have the wisdom to hire her, they'll be in bankruptcy within a year.