"You gone stark out of your head?" asks Addie, the all-knowing housemaid, in the first line of Lillian Hellman's pot-boiler The Little Foxes. And for the next two hours, that question is answered in the affirmative by almost every character in the play, which concerns a backstabbing, social-climbing Alabama family and their avaricious struggle to get the money to build a cotton mill on their plantation in the year 1900. Hellman's play opened on Broadway in 1939 with the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in the lead role of Regina Giddens, the ruthless woman who refuses to be cheated out of a windfall by her equally ruthless brothers. In an engrossing new production at New York Theatre Workshop from Flemish director Ivo van Hove, Regina is portrayed by Elizabeth Marvel, whose past collaborations with van Hove have proven particularly exhilarating, such as an unforgettable production of Hedda Gabler in 2006, and his visionary staging of A Streetcar Named Desire
The Little Foxes is an ideal vehicle for van Hove's visceral style of direction, which typically churns up a cyclone of feral outbursts and, in the case of his 2007 interpretation of Moliere's The Misanthrope, copious amounts of flying food. His "Little Foxes" is cleaner and more austere than that; when the dialogue references eating or drinking, there's no attempt to represent it naturalistically, and none of the actors affect a Southern accent. Jan Versweyveld's inspired design features almost no furnishings, instead covering the ceiling, floor, and walls with plush carpeting. An enclosed staircase in the middle turns the rest of the space into a circle around a square—a soft track around which the actors rabidly chase money, power, and each other. Above it all, a framed flat screen TV plays minimalist, Bill Viola-esque offstage video, most of it showing Regina's dying husband Horace (the ascetically serene Christopher Evan Welch), who steps off screen and on stage halfway through the performance to crush his wife's machinations.
It's a moody, almost misanthropic two hours of conniving, and as the excellent ensemble thrashes each other past the brink of sanity, a sort of hypnotic spell settles over the theater, enhanced by the modernist classic music that swirls in and out (as well as a nicely-timed inclusion of Radiohead's "House of Cards"). Though alternately funny and affecting, the performers' continuous emotional crescendos can start to feel a bit like watching someone's primal scream therapy, and those who caught van Hove's The Misanthrope might wonder if the director is idling at a career plateau, with his beyond-naturalism style becoming a little familiar. There are no breathtaking surprises here for van Hove fans, but his method of unleashing the hot-blooded passion from dusty classics is no less invigorating. The Giddens family's miserable, soul-sucking avarice feels bracingly contemporary in this production, making 1900 feel as immediate as 2010.