No Victorian furniture or Spanish moss is in evidence in Ivo van Hove’s contemporary, ultra-stark, and decidedly brutal staging of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, playing at New York Theatre Workshop. But the show’s lack of physical trappings — the action of this potboiler unfolds within a cube of deep purple velvet where a video screen held within an ornate gold frame, a small electronic organ and four ultra-modern chandeliers are the only adornments — actually serves to put a host of powerful and fiercely committed performances in stark relief. Indeed, the viciousness of the production extends well beyond Hellman’s cutting script.
The show revolves around the backstabbing, violent Hubbard clan, which includes brothers Ben (Marton Csokas) and Oscar (Thomas Jay Ryan), Oscar’s son, Leo (Nick Westrate), and, sister Regina (Elizabeth Marvel), who has never gotten over the fact that she inherited no money from her dead father. In van Hove’s staging, Oscar doesn’t merely slap his alcoholic wife Birdie (Tina Benko), when she informs niece Alexandra (Cristin Milioti) of the family’s plans for the younger girl’s marriage, he punches his wife in the stomach, repeatedly. At other points in the show, characters are thrown to the ground and slammed into walls by each other with almost inhuman ferocity.
Given such volcanic physical outbursts, it’s little surprise that when van Hove’s staging settles into quieter moments, it’s curiously comforting. Early on, Birdie shares a moment of intimacy with Regina, and as the two sit on the floor giggling like schoolgirls about the ways in which they’ll spend the money that the family will have once it has finished construction on a mill that it will jointly finance with a Chicago magnate, any sense of danger within the home dissipates entirely.
Later, as the high stakes game for control of the building project reaches its apogee, Regina’s ailing husband Horace (Christopher Evan Welch) huddles along with Alexandra, Birdie and the family maid Addie (Lynda Gravatt) at one side of the stage. The haunting image brings to mind any number of horror flicks in which characters hope that they might be able to escape their gruesome fates. That van Hove can achieve such emotional parallels in this quintessential stage melodrama is certainly a formidable accomplishment.
Yet, even as the production causes the heart to race, theatergoers can’t help but escape asking themselves about some of the director’s choices. On one level the physical violence against the women certainly underscores their powerlessness at the turn of the last century, but as the violence extends to man-against-man, this interpretation feels incomplete. Perhaps van Hove hopes to make the aggressiveness of the characters’ avarice physically palpable, but on many levels, such a choice feels curiously unnecessary: Hellman’s vipers’ words and deeds are cruel enough.
Some may also question the show’s drop-dead chic contemporary fashions (costume design by Kevin Guyer) and its lack of Southern accents, as well as of van Hove’s customary use of video, all of which is likely merely meant to underscore how the family’s greed mirrors our world today.
Fortunately, the production is blessed by a number of meticulously executed performances. Marvel navigates each of the character’s mercurial shifts with unquestionable precision, dropping her voice to a low monotone to emphasize the irony of the character’s coyness or bellowing with guttural savageness. It’s a remarkable — if unsurprising — turn, and one that’s perfectly paralleled in intensity and technique by Milioti.
Equally impressive are Welch’s and Benko’s turns as two of the weakest members of the family, as each of the performers delivers commandingly when the characters attempt to stake their own claim in the familial battles at hand. Ryan and Csokas offer up terrifically shaded smarminess, while Westrate even finds color in the one-note dimness of Leo — who will most likely continue the family’s abhorrent behaviors.