The Little Foxes

The ugly emotions so nakedly exposed reveal a timeliness that is downright terrifying.

'The Little Foxes'

Is there no play so dense, so layered, so steeped in cultural history that Ivo van Hove can’t strip it bare? Apparently not, since even “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s searing 1939 drama about the fall of the Old South to the greed and corruption of a rapacious modern era, gives up its soul in the post-modernist production mounted by the Flemish director and enacted by a dazzling cast. Although one might mourn the loss of the play’s highly structured social context, the ugly emotions so nakedly exposed by the directorial demolition job reveal a timeliness that is downright terrifying.

In van Hove’s sternly minimalist production for NYTW, no remnants survive of the elaborate social edifice that Hellman constructed to support the historic political struggle between the dying family dynasties of the old Southern aristocracy and the power-hungry, money-grubbing merchant classes that had infiltrated their ranks by buying their plantations, marrying their daughters, and moving into their mansions.

There is no mansion in this austere production, which has been removed from its turn-of-the-last-century setting and re-situated in 1990. No antique furnishings, no family portraits, no grand staircase — just thick carpets and bare padded walls (rendered in a mocking shade of regal purple by the production designer Jan Versweyveld) where the feuding members of two families locked in mortal combat can (literally) throw themselves against the wall and (also literally) pound one another into the floor.

The absence of all things southern, including the soft accents and polite manners drowned out by Thibaud Delpeut’s belligerent soundscape, finds its visual expression in the brief and clingy costumes designed by Kevin Guyer to be worn by the female characters, who show a lot of leg and are quick to go barefoot. Unencumbered by the buttons, bows, and furbelows that both corseted and protected women in the play’s original context, these modern specimens are free to give voice to their suppressed rage. Ironically, they are also more exposed and vulnerable.

Elizabeth Marvel, van Hove’s muse and a force of nature in his productions of “Hedda Gabler” and “Streetcar Named Desire,” attacks the role of Regina with an emotional intensity that goes hand in hand with her formidable intelligence. Although her modernized character is denied the original Regina’s cold cunning and subtle cruelty, Marvel makes the most of her freedom as a liberated woman.

Howling at her dead father for leaving his fortune to her two brothers — and cutting her out because she is a mere woman — Marvel puts her finger on the grievance that has made Regina the monster every woman who has ever been denied her rights can immediately identify with.

Despite being the centerpiece of the show, Marvel’s bravura performance doesn’t overwhelm the other fine players in this ensemble production. In von Hove’s scheme of things, subtext is all, which means that every character is turned inside-out, with the darkest emotions laid bare.

Marton Csokas’ viciously opportunistic Ben Hubbard and his conniving brother Oscar, given his sneaky due by Thomas Jay Ryan, are powerful embodiments of the ruthless greed that reared its head in the free-wheeling 1990s and has survived into the present day. Tina Benko (“Irena’s Vow”) has the satisfaction of giving poor, victimized Birdie her memorable moment of anger. And Cristin Milioti (“Stunning”) convinces us that young, innocent Alexandra will never turn into the monster her mother raised her to be.

The Little Foxes

New York Theater Workshop; 199 seats; $70 top

  • Production: A New York Theater Workshop presentation of a play in one act by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Ivo van Hove.
  • Crew: Set, Jan Versweyveld; costumes, Kevin Guyer; sound, Thibaud Delpeut; video, Tal Yarden; dramaturg, Thibaud Delpeut; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok. Reviewed Sept. 19, 2010. Opened Sept. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS.
  • Cast: Birdie Hubbard - Tina Benko Ben Hubbard - Marton Csokas William Marshall - Sanjit de Silva Addie - Lynda Gravatt Regina Giddens - Elizabeth Marvel Alexandra Giddens - Cristin Milioti Oscar Hubbard - Tomas Jay Ryan Cal - Greig Sargeant Horace Giddens - Christopher Evan Welch Leo Hubbard - Nick Westrate
  • Music By: