The Little Foxes
By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Ivo van Hove
New York Theater Workshop
New York City
September 10-October 31, 2010

The Flemish stage director Ivo van Hove, who was born in Finland and serves as general director for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, has made a name for himself in New York with crazy, beautiful productions of American and European classics at New York Theater Workshop. His most famous, wildly controversial shows – A Streetcar Named Desire, whose set consisted of a few wooden chairs and a working bathtub, and Hedda Gabler, in which the title character ran around stapling flowers to the sheetrock walls to the tune of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” – were collaborations with the fearless downtown actress Elizabeth Marvel. When she had to bow out of van Hove’s 2008 reality-TV version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, they brainstormed about their next project together. Marvel’s suggestion was a play the director had never heard of: The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s taut and entertaining melodrama about a striving Southern family who’ll do anything to get rich. 

It’s easy to understand why Marvel (above right) would want to undertake the leading role of Regina Giddens. Famously played in the past by Tallulah Bankhead (in the original 1939 Broadway production), Bette Davis (in the 1941 film version by William Wyler), and Elizabeth Taylor (in a 1981 Broadway revival), Regina is a creature of unmitigated and unapologetic desire for more more more. She married Horace Giddens (Christopher Evan Welch, above left, who played Mitch to Marvel’s Blanche in Streetcar) for his money and is counting on him to provide the crucial investment so that she and her brothers can team up with a Chicago mogul to build a cotton mill in their small Alabama town. As she tellingly says to the ruined aristocrat now married to her nasty brother, “There’ll be millions, Birdie, millions. You know what I’ve always said when people told me we were rich? I said I think you should either be a nigger or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?” Regina is ruthless, and she’s a winner.

Of course, Ivo van Hove doesn’t go at this play the way any other director would. He creates hard-core Brechtian theater. That means, for one thing, he wants you to be absolutely aware that you’re in a theater, rather than, say, a fly on the wall of a turn-of-the-20th- century Southern mansion. So the set (designed by Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s longtime partner) is a big blank box lined in purple felt, at once funereal and vulvular. The only furniture is a tiny unused spinet. At the center is what looks like a fireplace except that it’s the entrance to a stairwell, and over the opening (where a family portrait might loom traditionally) is a flat-screen TV monitor depicting scenes of characters who are offstage. Van Hove also wants you to be aware that, no matter what time period the play’s action is set, the production is taking place right now – so the actors are wearing what chic Manhattanites might wear to a party, speaking Hellman’s intense dialogue without distancing Southern accents. An almost continuous sound score (designed by Thibaud Delpeut) counterpoints the dialogue with snatches of melodramatic movie music, Steve Reich, Randy Newman, and Radiohead (“House of Cards”). 

Van Hove dispenses with Hellman’s stage directions and intermissions. Instead, he highlights certain images and emotions to call attention to key elements in the play rather than keeping them smoothly embedded in the text. For instance, there’s a tiny table front and center that serves as a kind of altar, and objects of reverence are ceremonially placed there: for act one, a bottle of whiskey; act two, Horace’s pillbox; act three, a bank safety deposit box. And the physical interactions escalate to extreme violence – men punch women in the stomach and slam them against the walls, the women pummel them and pull their hair, people roll around on the floor alternately catfighting and caressing, as if they were in a dance by Pina Bausch. And when the stakes get high, the characters scream at each other like little kids throwing tantrums. It’s not pretty, but it’s primal. 

Van Hove’s actors are bravely game for all this. Marvel breezes through Regina’s rigors with George Clooney coolness, while Welch allows himself to look as weak and flaccid as a Democratic Congress facing Tea Party lunatics. Among the others, Thomas Jay Ryan and Marton Csokas are especially good as Regina’s brothers, the narrow-minded Oscar Hubbard and family diplomat (and unspokenly gay) Ben Hubbard, respectively.

Old-fashioned dramaturgy affects outrage: what does any of this have to do with what Lillian Hellman wrote? But van Hove’s is a postmodern dramaturgy that says: if you want what Lillian Hellman wrote, read the play, or see the movie. To perform Hellman’s play “faithfully” would be to deaden it, to lull the audience into unthinking. Brecht revolutionized modern theater by championing epic theater over what he called dramatic or “culinary” theater: “The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – it’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”

Rather than trashing or besmirching Hellman’s play, van Hove’s production trusts that it can take care of itself quite well, and it does – it’s strong and powerful and indestructible. The director adds to it his own quirky reading, asking: what does this say about us, about our time? He doesn’t let us decide that some characters are the good guys and some are the bad guys. Yes, he frequently groups together the four characters who reject the Hubbard brothers’ venal exploitation – Horace, his daughter Alexandra, Birdie, and the black housemaid Addie – but the tableau could be captioned with Hellman’s line (spoken by Addie) “There are those that eat the earth, and those who stand around and watch them do it.” 

Van Hove stages certain moments for sheer provocation, another Brechtian move. In the play’s final scene, Marvel’s Regina sits mutely and smugly on the stairs while the loudspeakers blare a snippet from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” At first I was shocked: Whaaaa? Then I had to laugh at the sheer audacity of juxtaposing a corny, transgressive political slogan from the 1970s with Marvel’s portrayal of a thoroughly modern woman. Victim, victor, or both? My companion and I walked off into the East Village after the show, animatedly discussing what it all meant – a good night at the theater., October 3, 2010