So, who was better as Regina and who was better as Birdie: Laura Linney or Cynthia Nixon?
That has been the question bluntly asked of me after seeing both configurations of the The Little Foxes.
If you have the money and time, Broadway is hosting a fascinating performative parlor game. Linney and Nixon—the latter most famous for playing Miranda in Sex and The City—are playing, in different performances, both Regina Hubbard Giddens and Birdie Hubbard, the sisters-in-law and lead characters in Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play (probably her most famous, and supposedly her favorite play), now a handsomely mounted Manhattan Theatre Club revival.
The parlor game is even more tantalizing because both actresses are so good at playing both the imperious, manipulative and venomous Regina, and the flighty and damaged Birdie.
How Tallulah Bankhead, the original stage-Regina, would have fared as Birdie is something to mull during the play’s two, very well-timed, intervals. The specter of Bette Davis as Regina hovers too, if you have seen William Wyler’s 1941 movie (which earned Davis a Best Actress Oscar nomination; she lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion).
So, if you have the disposable income and over five hours to spare, go and indulge yourself. If, however, you will make your choice and go to The Little Foxes once, with just one boldface actor in one role, you will not have wasted your money. Both actresses are excellent, and excellently distinct.
Hellman’s setting is a small town in Alabama 1900, in the living room of the Giddens, formerly the Hubbard, house. The curtain rises on what seems to be a convivial upper-class family supper. But, as with everything else in this sharp, vinegary play—understatedly designed by Scott Pask and crisply directed by Daniel Sullivan—the supper is about money.
Everything is about money in The Little Foxes: not having it, getting it, what it can buy you, and what it can cost you. Its corollary is power: Regina wants to be the fulcrum of the family, even if she has long been denied that position. Hellman’s is the most subversive of family dramas: the very mention or notion of love or kinship sounds alien in this house. Wealth provides the ties that bind; the color of Hubbard blood is unapologetic, shameless dollar-bill green.
Regina, married to the initially unseen Horace (Richard Thomas), who is away recovering from illness, feels as if she has never had money, and she damn well deserves it. Overlooked by their dead father, who saw his sons as his heirs, she has always been a subsidiary to her brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein).
They want to build a cotton mill, and that first dinner is for a Chicago industrialist, Mr. Marshall (David Alford) whom Regina successfully flirts with.
If Regina’s name implies someone queenly, regal, and not to be disobeyed, her sister Birdie’s name is just as telling: fluttery, not easily pinned down, airy, small, vulnerable. If Regina is statuesque in fitted satin dresses, her hair pinned back and immaculate and features sharp, Birdie is seen in flowing clothes, her hair a buffeted tangle.
She can’t make herself heard in the family at all; she is an adjunct, a patronized ghost on the periphery, and she is a victim of husband Oscar’s violence.
We see him hit her once, and Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), Regina’s daughter who loves Birdie dearly, hears her stumble; Birdie excuses it away.
As played by both Linney and Nixon, Birdie wants to harken back to nicer times, simpler times, times when people were better to one another. But these desperate, brightly voiced hopes, are informed by her more painful knowledge that all that is warm and familial is lost.
The contrast of Regina and Birdie, and the emerging prominence of Alexandra highlights this as a play at least partly about what power a woman can assert and exercise having grown up and into a patriarchal world. Birdie chooses to retreat, Regina chooses to fight, and Alexandra may go another way entirely.
The decay money has wrought chez Hubbard is signaled by the distemper of the walls and the creeping shadows over Pask’s drawing room set. The grandeur is spartan and not to be luxuriated in; Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay) and Cal (Charles Turner), the family’s two black servants—the play keeps Hellman’s original use of the word “negro” within it—are well-placed, bluff observers to the chicanery and abuse around them, and the most reprehensible characters in the play treat them the most dismissively. Clay in particular makes a winning meal out of the very little Hellman wrote for her.
How to raise money to invest in that cotton mill is the most immediate material question: the answer, Regina decides, is to get Horace back sharpish, a job which Regina, who knows Horace would not choose to follow her, sees as a job for Alexandra.
Oscar sees financial advantage in marrying Alexandra off to his and Birdie’s son, Leo (Michael Benz, excellent as a brilliant, stupid, unsubtle weasel) who—in one of her her most audience-appreciated moments—Birdie confesses to loathing.
The actors expertly parse the modalities of venality and villainy at play. McKean is a silken wily fox, Goldstein—much as he behaved as his other well-known character, the restaurant manager also called Oscar, in the early seasons of The Affair—is brilliant at being bumptious, crude, and menacing.
Leo is very much his father’s son, coming up with a sneaky way to fleece Horace without Horace realizing. But Horace does realize, and—as initially played with a twinkling grace by Thomas, most famous as John-Boy in The Waltons—sets about goosing the villains at their own game.
What stands out is the acid and fury of the confrontations in the play between Horace and Regina (some well imagined as happening upstairs and off-stage, with accompanying bangs and crashes). Thomas is so good at playing sick you genuinely fear for him as his face reddens, his wheezing worsens, and his stumbles become ever more perilous.
Regina feels she has been the one with the drive and determination in this marriage. He is horrified at the lack of love she feels for him. Her dislike and disrespect for him has curdled to a true and raw desire that he should die—both Linney and Nixon magnificently spit this out.
No spoilers as to how this feverish marital horror plays out; but both audiences I was in gasped when it became apparent. It is Horace—noting that people like Regina and her ghastly brothers will end up ruining their town with their greed and sweat-shops, and “wreck the country, you and your kind”—that earned the loudest collective sigh of the evening. Horace’s premonition has never been more sadly acute.
If Linney as Regina has a beaky sharpness, silently inviting anyone to defy her (rather as Bette Davis did in the 1941 movie), Nixon is more quizzical with a crueler curling lip, as if she cannot believe anyone would be foolish enough to defy her.
As Birdie, Nixon is more visibly smashed-up and detached than Linney. They both embody the character as deeply traumatized, but whereas the dream world Nixon has retreated to is written cloudily on her face, Linney’s isolation is inhabited in a more present and anguished, shaky way. For a whole stretch of dialogue, Birdie is quite literally on the sidelines watching the others; and it is a testament to both actresses you watch her as keenly as you watch those involved in the dialogue. Watch Birdie too every time she goes near, or declines, a tumbler of alcohol: fear, temptation, and trepidation, and not a word said.
Touch or shake Birdie too hard, and you sense the most awful scream would cry out; and that scream is beautifully vocalized in an act two monologue, which is a dark, confessional survey of a life of frustrated expectations and emotional impasses—a speech that spans comedy and tragedy in one line when alcohol-drenched Birdie impatiently reveals, as if to a class of dunderheads, that of course her debilitating “headaches” aren’t anything of the kind.
Both Nixon and Linney calibrate and phrase this amazing speech so beautifully—Linney got an ovation the evening I saw it—it is truly almost worth the price of admission alone.
Regina’s final fight is with the men, and Hellman’s focus is not just the emergence of her primacy—her perverse delight to be the rightful head of this morally etiolated family—but also in her relationship with Alexandra, her daughter.
Alexandra appears all little-girl frills to her mother’s bitter, serrated edges, but, as delicately sketched by Carpanini, there is strength in her comparative moral purity and a determination to get the hell out of these corrosive four walls. Hellman shows both the greed she sees as consuming America and families, and—in Alexandra—a tentative escape route.
There has been so much masterfully deployed poison throughout the play that one might wrongly overlook this final emphasis of Hellman’s. Yet we are never left in any doubt that a triumphant Regina is as damaged as Birdie, and just as scared and alone. Worse, she must live with the self-knowledge of her deeds, as well as the knowledge that those around her know what she may have done. A madness may consume her, you feel. And in the defiant Alexandra Regina has raised, despite her own spite, a quiet heroine who may well escape the Hubbards’ material obsession and the insanity it brings.
In the defiant Alexandra, Regina has raised—despite her own spite—a quiet heroine who may well escape the Hubbards’ material obsession and the insanity it brings.
The Little Foxes is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC. Book tickets, to June 18, here.