Monday, June 5, 2017
"Grits Didn't Hold The Heat!!!!!!!!!! Grits Didn't Hold The Heat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
The heat, darlings, is red hot when the curtain goes up on stage at what used to be the Biltmore Theatre, (where Shelley Plimpton once sang "Frank Mills" on stage in "HAIR") but is now a home for the Manhattan Theatre Club. on this superb production of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes."
Girls, no matter how you see it, this play, its characters, the way it is written, and the company who performs it, cannot help but be the Bitchfest Of The Broadway Season!!!!!!!!!"
"The Little Foxes," and "King Lear," are my favorite plays. Because they speak of family dynamics in a timeless way that never goes out of style. Nastiness never changes, my dears.
Now, about how one sees it. This post is based on having seen Laura Linney play Regina, and Cynthia Nixon play Birdie. The two switch roles, and if you have seen one, and love this play as much as I do, you will be greatly tempted--as I am--to see the other.
The pairing I saw has been touted as the one to see, and I have to say it lives up to expectations. This "Little Foxes" is full of interpretive surprises. For example, when the curtain opens up, Birdie is the first to enter, and once Cynthia Nixon hits the stage--especially for those of us who know the play; who, like me, have lived it--one's eye is drawn to her, and does not leave until she leaves the stage. Birdie, whose plight is considerable, is a character fraught with tension, so, knowing this, audiences may wonder when that tension will emerge. And Cynthia Nixon keeps one on edge, as she slowly, in her quiet, understated, intentionally naive way, brings it out. Biride's naivete comes from clinging to her emotional past--one of romance and innocence. That, her elderberry wine, and love for her niece, Alexandra, are all she has to keep her centered. Miss Birdie may play the fool, but, as later revealed, turns out not to be as dumb as everyone thinks. She nails it the moment she gets to the line, "Marriage? Zan--and Leo?"
But isn't that always the way, girls? Why, in branches of my family, to many, I am just a dumb jerk, like Leo. They have no idea of the Regina lurking beneath. But one day, you can bet on it, girls, they will find out--and I will provide a full accounting here.
Laura Linney is by far the most hateful Regina I have seen. Not even at the end did I feel an ounce of pity. What she brings to the role that I have never seen before, is a vulgarity that reveals, up front, the Hubbard family are not gentry; they are little more than White Trash having worked its way up. Some Reginas forget that, but Miss Linney seems to revel in it, resulting in a greater comprehension of the character and her motivations--her nastiness, her almost Medea-like willingnesss to sell off her daughter in marriage to Leo, and the horrendous way she treats a sick man, who happens to be her husband, Horace. Their offstage argument upstairs, which can be heard clear to the rafters, is especially disturbing.
What about Horace? Well, Richard Thomas is most interesting in the role, and he makes several novel choices. Horace is often played overtly sickly, and while Thomas trods that ground superbly, it is when he rises to his true wrath--when he lashes out at the family on the stairs, Thomas was turning so red and apoplectic looking, I feared he was going to have a coronary himself--that he has his relations' numbers. By this point, the audience knows Horace is all but several steps away from that coronary, and, like Miss Nixon, Thomas makes the audience tense up, as to when it will happen. When it finally does, I have to confess that, until he gets to the stairs, things are a bit protracted. Dan Sullivan, a superb director, should have toned down things here, because it just borders on being as ludicrous as Lillian Gish's death scene in the 1946 film. "Duel In The Sun." But not quite. Mr. Thomas is the most interesting Horace I have seen. Perhaps this aggressiveness, seldom seen in other productions I have watched, is to show us that beneath the mild demeanor, he is every bit Regina's match. As he well turns out to be.
I have seen Michael McKean three times on stage now--and he is always different. Besides here, I saw him in "Hairspray," and "Superior Donuts." Still known for Lenny on "Laverne And Shirley"--at least, to us baby boomers--he possesses a range and versatility he is often not given enough credit for. Honestly, I would never thought of him for the role of Ben Hubbard, but then McKean surprised the bejesus out of me with an insightful, understated, and delightfully nasty portrayal. He is a man of hate, who is content to wait--because has the ability to sit back and let everyone else go at it. One of his last lines is my favorite in this play, and he delivers it with just the right note of sardonic wryness. "I agree with Alexandra," he says laconically," what is a man in a wheelchair doing on a staircase?" He has his sister's number--and she knows it!
By perfect contrast, Darren Goldstein is transparently nasty as Oscar Hubbard, making it perfect sense that the even dumber Leo should be his son. Oscar is actually a spineless wretch; he woos and marries Birdie because his brother Ben goads him to, so they can steal her family home and its cotton. He has no love, though they have a child, Leo, they both seem to despise, and is deserving of that. He finds sexual comfort elsewhere--with other women, as does Leo. But what about Ben? He is not married, and I have always wondered about Ben. I was hoping this production would make some attempt to explore that. Alas, no, Perhaps in the next one.
Let's talk about "the children"--Alexandra and Leo. Michael Benz may be too cute for his own good, and a bit short, but he is a pitch perfect dumb jerk, as Leo. Leo is the worst kind of jerk--nasty and dumb, who does not know when to keep his mouth shut. Oscar is seen physically pushing him around, just as we know he abuses his wife, but Leo never gets the slap he has coming to him I have seen in other productions, And I missed that slap, sadly. Leo is possibly the most hateful character in the play. Regina, at least, has some intelligence and wit behind her machinations, as do the others. All but Leo--he is a jerk, and, if any of this family is to wind up in jail, it will be he. And Benz conveys all this venality superbly. Leo is all ego and id!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Which leaves me with Alexandra. Ah, dear Alexandra. For ninety nine percent of the play, Francesca Carpinini's performance is spot on. But when the end comes, when it is she and Regina down to the wire on that stage, Miss Carpinini loses it. First, Dan Sullivan's blocking of her does the character a disservice. So does her comportment; Alexandra never displays her unsheathing of that physical and emotional power that shows her to be a potential match for her mother. When the line comes where it is revealed--"Say it, mother. Say it, and see what happens," the actress does not register the impact this moment should have. Nor in her final speech, beginning with "Addie once said there were people who ate the earth....." Which makes Regina's declaration of Alexandra's new found spirit--"I used to think you were all sugar water."--pointless. Carpinini does a disservice to a very pivotal and classic dramatic ending. Why was this not worked out more in rehearsal? Why does Sullivan choose to allow her to play it this way? Which, sadly, makes me question, why was this actress cast?????????????????
Two veterans, Charles Turner, and Caroline Stefanie Clay, play the servants, Cal and Addie. Never have I seen more pointed expressions of social discontent in their interpretations of these relatively minor, but still important roles. They give the play a social gravitas it might not otherwise have had. If only Sullivan had been as wise with Miss Carpinini as he was with these two.
I just love "The Little Foxes." Despite some minor discrepancies, this is a pitch perfect production. Those coming to it for the first time will see as outstanding a rendering of this piece as John Tiffany's "The Glass Menagerie," several years back. The discrepancies I mention will go virtually unnoticed.
I must confess, I have always wanted to act in this play. Well, of course, I want to play Regina or Biride, but, unless Charles Busch takes it on, I don't stand a chance. When young, I had my eye on Leo. Now, I have reached the age where I could play Horace or Oscar. And I would love to. But, that's me, and we shall see!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Meanwhile, see this "Little Foxes." And, while you do, think about Lillian Hellman having written so many other plays, yet this gem is the only one revived.
I am telling you, girls, it is a crying shame!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!