Laura Linney and Cynthia Fox are alternating parts at performances of the revival of Lillian Hellman’s "The Little Foxes," now playing on Broadway (Photo by Joan Marcus)
The marketing hook of Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play “The Little Foxes” is that the show’s lead and supporting female parts, Regina Giddens and her sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard, are both being played by stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, in alternating performances.
This sort of role-swapping — Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly famously did it in a 2000 revival of Sam Shepherd’s “True West”; Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch did it more recently in England in “Frankenstein” — tends to be a lot more interesting to actors and theater insiders than to audience members, the majority of whom are only going to experience the production once. It’s an even trickier (and arguably more pointless) gambit with a show like “The Little Foxes,” a ripe melodrama about a backstabbing Southern family that doesn’t quite beg for endless re-interpretation.
So while I can report from the performance I attended that Linney makes for a splendidly seething Regina, and Nixon is especially strong as the defeated but still desperately hopeful Birdie, I should also add that nothing about this effective, but straight-over-the-plate production (directed by Daniel Sullivan) compelled me to want to return again to watch the actresses in the opposite parts. One pretty good version of one pretty good play seems like more than enough.
Most famously incarnated by Bette Davis in the 1941 film version, Regina is one of three siblings scheming to make a fortune, circa 1900, in a small Alabama town. Along with her brothers Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Ben (an excellent Michael McKean), Regina has struck upon a potential windfall in the form of a manufacturing deal with a Chicago businessman (David Alford). Holding the purse strings to her share of the buy-in, though, is her sickly husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who is determined to teach Regina a lesson after having endured a lifetime of her cynicism and manipulation. Mostly shunted to the sidelines, Birdie — who is married to the abusive Oscar — is the audience’s moral conscience, the decent person who watches and despairs at the bad behavior erupting all around her.
Hellman’s proto-feminist observations about how power structures imprison even the most strong-willed of women are compelling, if facile — for a more vigorous and urgent social critique, her 1934 “The Children’s Hour” is the play that’s overdue for a Broadway revival. For the most part, Linney resists the high-camp dudgeon that Davis brought to the movie, opting for a more psychologically grounded Regina. But while that’s a laudable choice, it also drains the proceedings of some potential electricity — a matter compounded by Sullivan’s steady, but restrained pacing. This “Little Foxes,” with its predictably handsome set and costume design (by Scott Pask and Jane Greenwood, respectively) evoking a sense of faded Southern glory, never quite gets the pulse racing.
The Little Foxes
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York.
Tickets:$70-$150, available online at www.telecharge.com. Through June 18.