How I wish the redoubtable Lillian Hellman would rise from her grave and throttle, or at least deliver one of her famous, earth-scorching tirades at, Flemish director Ivo van Hove for what he has done to her great play THE LITTLE FOXES, at New York Theater Workshop. There are simply no other words for it: unmitigated Eurotrash.
The trappings are all very posh and modern, naturally, with a furniture-less, luxe environment of purple velvet covered-walls and carpeting, with a telling suggestion of the famous denoument staircase and a pointlessly anachronistic and pushy video screen, which often – and always abysmally and unnecessarily – shows the various characters’ actions while they “offstage.” This includes sickly husband Horace Giddens (a laughably miscast and callow Christopher Evan Welch, like a frat boy with the flu) on his sickbed and his viciously grasping Hubbard in-laws, Ben (Marton Csokas, who looks like Kevin Spacey but has nowhere near his acting chops), Oscar (Thomas Jay Ryan, so good in THE TEMPERAMENTALS but also miscast here in this fatherly role), and his doltish, brutal son Leo (the appealingly fresh Nick Westrate, so good in BOYS IN THE BAND and the best actor in this cast).
van Hove willfully, cluelessly strips the play of its very Southern, period ambiance so essential to its behavorial drama. These Hubbards are openly infuriated, frustrated by, and violent with each other, which makes the random brutality of their actions predictable and ultimately monotonous, instead of shocking eruptions piercing all that civilized, plantation gentility. In the play’s original conception, when Oscar suddenly slaps his sadly neglected, alcoholic wife, Birdie (Tina Benko, wrongly playing this mousy, cowed character like a Wistaria Lane desperate housewife in Victoria’s Secret scanty red satin robe and heels), the absolute, covert viciousness of the attack made you gasp. Here, van Hove has her thrice running repeatedly into Oscar’s clenched fist to receive a punch in the gut. Are we to infer from her repeated returns for more abuse that theirs is an S&M relationship? Oo, kinky, and, yes, so very, very Eurotrash and, well, just hideous. After a while, the actors’ repeated slapping, choking and hurling themselves at each other becomes the tiredest idee fixe , and a real audience trial, making you feel like those guests in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, but, in your case, definitely planning an earlier escape from this particular dramatic hell. van Hoeve cast Sanjit de Silva as an out-of-town tycoon Regina, Oscar and Ben are dying to ally themselves with financially, and no doubt his ethnicity is van Hoeve’s unsubtle comment on contemporary economic takeover by the Third World. The fact that the flirtatious Regina, as played by Marvel, equinely towers over him probably struck the director as the most delicious – if somewhat offensive – visual fillip.
For all of his lousy innovations, however, van Hove was completely unable to rethink the famous climax of the play when the venal Regina Giddens (Elizabeth Marvel) denies her non-complicit and therefore useless husband Horace his medicine, thereby sending him to his doom, torturously crawling up those steps, clutching his diseased heart. It’s indeed telling that here, of all places, he should be starved for any excessive, hack-like inspiration.
Marvel, after her previous work with van Hove in HEDDA GABLER and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (neither of which I saw, grace a Dieux, probablement), as well as with other directors, is the darling of the Off-Broadway avant-garde, but, frankly, she has never really shaken my tree. She plays Regina like some spoilt child that has wandered off the set of that other play with contemporary yupsters behaving badly, GOD OF CARNAGE, throwing tantrums when she doesn’t get her way, and substituting magnolia charm with smirking snarkiness. This is never more apparent than in her famous line when Oscar tells her that it’s all right for Leo to marry her daughter Alexandra (a screechingly hysterical Cristin Miloti), even if they’re first cousins, bcause their own parents were similarly related. “And look how we turned out!” is Regina’s riposte, but the obnoxioiusly chortling, self-satisfied way Marvel delivers it totally robs the line of its sudden cruel hilarity. It’s a studied, smart alecky performance completely lacking in any vitally compelling allure and the presence of tattoos on Marvel’s leg bothered me. While I freely grant the right of any woman to do what she like with her physique, an actress’ major tool is, of course, her body, and Marvel’s decision not to conceal her ink struck me as both self-indulgent and careless. It’s one thing for an actor playing . say Stanley Kowalski or Hal Carter in PICNIC to retain his tats, but what are we to infer here? That the well brought-up Southern flower Regina got them during some particularly wild, drunken weekend in Myrtle Beach?
Provocateur that he is, van Hoeve positively revels in Hellman’s liberal use of the N-word – you can almost see the actors using imaginary megaphones whenever they say it. As for the servants, who are the main recipients of this ugly epithet, Lynda Gravatt is overly strident (like an angry Della Reese), while Christopher Evan Welch is largely inaduible.
Not to be too xenophobic, but so great is my disgust with the desecration of another American classic by yet another presumptuous, wrongheadedly “avant garde” pond jumper that I just want to paraphrase that other Southern belle played by Bette Davis in HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE and scream:”Get off our properties!”
Regina Giddens is one of the great roles in the American theater, fascinatingly malevolent, an almost logical product of her thwarted time, when women were so less entitled and empowered than they are now, especially in relation to men. One can easily imagine Scarlett O’Hara in later years, after Rhett Butler does NOT return to her, becoming ever more venal, cold and Regina-like.
Here are some of the actresses who have played her.
Tallulah Bankhead, gowned by genius Aline Bernstein, originated the role on Broadway in 1939 for some 410 performances, finally solidifying her reputation as a serious actress of note, after a disastrous stab at ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA two years before.
Samuel Goldwyn paid a hefty price to borrow Bette Davis for the 1941 William Wyler film, noted for the epic squabbles between director and star (former lovers) about the interpretation of Regina. From what can be gleaned from the various existing accounts, it appears that Davis adamantly refused to copy Bankhead’s performance in any way, while Wyler – like any good director – was definitely not above taking anything that worked onstage for his film, especially certain elements of Bankhead’s portrayal. Critic Pauline Kael saw Bankhead onstage and recalled her camping and vamping her way over the play’s slow spots. (What were they, exactly, I wonder, as I find the whole of it, especially Regina’s scenes, pretty riveting.) The on-set tension became so great that there was talk of replacing Davis with Bankhead (who’d been a failure in the early 1930s movies she’d made) or Miriam Hopkins (a Georgia-born, sublime actress, and favorite of Tennessee Williams, absolutely born to play it).
Magnificently costumed by Orry-Kelly, Davis rewarded her scrupulous director (with whom she never worked again) with a mannered, cold-as-ice, utterly unsensual performance that was impressive on a purely technical level, but fatally lacking in any revelatory surprise or electrifying charisma which could magically fuel the production. Only 33 at the time, Davis needlessly made herself older for the part, plastering herself in calcimine powder which her research revealed was popular among Southern ladies of the period, but which stripped her of any appealing womanliness, rendering her forbiddingly Kabuki-like. George Cukor who famously fired the young Bette from his Rochester, NY theater repertory company in the 1920s, in later years, would humorously apologize for his action, saying, “I wasn’t then quite prepared for the Kabuki style of acting.” In the whole of Davis performance, there are only two moments when she breaks through her frozen, overly worked out conception of Regina as an off-putting icon of evil and greed. The first is a technically expert gesture when she pins up a stray curl of her pompadour, staring at herself cross-eyed in a mirror, and then, later, when she ruthlessly kicks one of her brothers’ feet off a table and impulsively erupts in malicious laughter at her move.
This resistance to strong direction would prove Davis unmaking as an artist. Most of the rest of her career found her working with largely inferior directors she could easily dominate (Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s ALL ABOUT EVE was a rare, very precious exception). The result was her becoming increasingly mannered into the Bette beloved by female impersonators, with the familiar staccato vocal delivery and gesticulation creating an arid landscape devoid of any freshness, sensuality or mystery. Five years after THE LITTLE FOXES, she copped another plumb stage role, Miss Moffatt in Emlyn Williams’ THE CORN IS GREEN, originated onstage by Ethel Barrymore. Again playing “older,” and again playing older too strenuously, she was again a bloody bore, going in the total opposite direction from evil, evil Regina, into the realm of the impossibly saintly and morally and intellectually upright.
Such was the pervasive import of the play that Marc Blitzstein adapted it into the opera REGINA in 1947. I saw a powerful Lauren Flanigan sing it at Bard in 2005 (below).
Anne Bancroft (pictured with E.G. Marshall, George C. Scott and Austin Pendleton) was Regina in the 1967 Lincoln Center production directed by Mike Nichols.
I caught Stockard Channing in the 1997 Vivian Beaumont revival and. although she appeared somewhat physically challenged in the role, her Act I climax when she shrieked to the high heavens of Lincoln Center her fervent wish that her husband die, and die soon, was indeed devastating.
COPYRIGHT: davidnoh 2010