An interesting thing is happening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre: all-stars Laura Linney (The Big C) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) are alternating the roles of headstrong, conniving Regina Giddens and meek, abused Birdie Hubbard in the Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes. In theory, it’s a fascinating experiment—especially for theatergoers who have the resources to see both versions of the show, as I was able to. But in practice, one pairing has just a bit more magic in it than the other.
Set in early 20th century Alabama, The Little Foxes centers on the Hubbard siblings — callous, shrewd Ben (veteran actor Michael McKean, deliciously sneering and evil); insecure, abusive Oscar (The Affair’s Darren Goldstein); and Regina (Linney/Nixon, depending on the performance), who’s just as calculating as her brothers, but, because she’s a woman, is devoid of any inheritance money of her own to invest in a new mill that the Hubbards think will make them millionaires. There’s also Birdie (Nixon/Linney), born into Southern aristocracy but married, puzzlingly, to Oscar. She dotes on Regina’s innocent teen daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini, quite charming) and recoils from her own daft, arrogant son, Leo (Michael Benz). Rounding out the cast are Charles Turner as Cal, the Giddens’s butler, and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie, their maid and Alexandra’s longtime nanny. Both bring dimension to roles that could easily fade into the background, making the audience feel their resigned discomfort when characters recall how the Hubbards previously made their fortune cheating poor black folks on food prices.
To get her own share of the mill, Regina must convince her ailing husband Horace Giddens (the phenomenal Richard Thomas of The Americans) not only to return home from Baltimore where he’s been resting due to a heart condition, but also to invest his money in the project. Linney shines in the role of Regina, her deep voice and deceptive dimples perfectly suited for the character’s commanding presence: It takes a hefty amount of confidence (and maybe a dose of sociopathy) to demand her brothers give her a bigger share of the mill — and to torment Horace as she does when he’s clearly nearing death and determined to “do no more harm” to the town before he goes. And even though Regina can be cruel, Linney still allows the audience to feel the pain of knowing what she could have accomplished, the deals she could have closed, if she were born a man.
Nixon’s Regina doesn’t pack quite the same punch — unless she’s yelling at someone. In her best moments, Nixon is all ice, where Linney’s Regina is fire. Perhaps Nixon seems like the lesser Regina only because she is so brilliant as Birdie, imbuing her with a mix of wide-eyed dreaminess and world-weary despair as she tries to keep Alexandra from suffering the same miserable fate. By contrast, Linney’s Birdie just doesn’t seem as beaten down and frail from years of Oscar’s abuse.
Of course, this repertory-style casting demands comparison of the two stars, and Nixon’s Regina and Linney’s Birdie are in no way disappointing. It’s still a treat to watch these masters at play, along with the rest of the vibrant cast. Even the set itself is a sight to behold: With Scott Pask’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s disconcertingly naturalistic lighting, you can practically feel the mansion stretching out beyond the stage like a portal to the Deep South. By the end of the play, though, it’s a portal you may be glad to leave those Hubbards trapped in for good. A-