The Little Foxes

Ivo van Hove and Elizabeth Marvel reinvent an American classic.

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  • SISTER ACT Marvel, left, gets cold comfort from Csokas.

SISTER ACT Marvel, left, gets cold comfort from Csokas.

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

The plush, royal-purple walls of Jan Versweyveld's set for The Little Foxes bespeak aristocracy, fitting for the home of Southern matriarch Regina Giddens. But instead of being a chic shelter for heaps of pricey art and furniture, this minimalist showroom is void. What we see, lit by harsh chandeliers, is a looted display case in which the scions of slaveholders battle desperately for possession of an empty box.

Contrariwise, riches abound for ticket holders who catch Ivo van Hove's brutally incisive revival of Lillian Hellman's 1939 family drama. Once again, the Flemish director partners with Elizabeth Marvel to peel the withered, tradition-carbuncled skin off a classic. Last time, their 2005 Hedda Gabler revealed the victimized aspect of Ibsen's great diva. Similarly, Marvel's portrayal of Regina (famously incarnated by Tallulah Bankhead on stage and Bette Davis on film) gives full scope to the character's cruelty, but shows her just as bullied and exploited as the black servants who maintain a genteel memory of Old Dixie.

Van Hove doesn't deconstruct the text so much as strip it bare and blast it at top volume. This Little Foxes runs for two intermissionless hours with hardly any set pieces or props, but the plot unfolds with diamond-hard clarity. Regina's brothers, Ben and Oscar (Marton Csokas and Thomas Jay Ryan, both superbly vicious), pressure their sister to pony up a third of the investment to finance a cotton-processing factory. Regina's sickly husband, Horace (Christopher Evan Welch), resents her ruthless, money-grubbing clan and refuses to cooperate. Scheming, blackmailing, betrayal and decades-old family resentments drive our antiheroine to homicidal extremes.

Hellman's play has been criticized for melodramatic crudity, but Van Hove's production turns the work's excesses into virtues. His stark, violent approach (including a video display of offstage action) may seem distractingly conceptual, but it boldly physicalizes the themes of rape and subjugation that run through the play. Need we add that the director is working with a rock-star cast, including Cristin Milioti, Tina Benko and Nick Westrate? And of course, there's the brazen, raw Marvel, for whom even basest degradation is a kind of triumph.

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New York Theatre Workshop. By Lillian Hellman. Dir. Ivo van Hove. With ensemble cast. 2hrs. No intermission.

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