I saw *The Little Foxes* on Broadway on 6/27/17 and saw it again with Karen and Richard on 7/1/17. Why would I see a show twice, in such a short time span? This production has an unprecedented gimmick: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the two leading female roles. I saw Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie on 6/27 and Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie on 7/1. I only know of one other case where this was done on Broadway, and that was in a 2000 production of Sam Shepard's *True West*: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated in the two roles. This was the first time that women have alternated roles in a Broadway show.
The play is probably Lillian Hellman's best known play, it had its Broadway premiere in 1939. The best roles in the show are the two leading female roles, so it's no mistake that these two great actors were eager to do it. The story I heard (and I might be making this up) is that the producers called Laura Linney and said they wanted her to play Regina. She said, "Let me get back to you about that," called her friend Cynthia Nixon, and they hatched this idea of switching roles.
I had read the play and seen the movie, but had never seen it onstage. Richard is lucky enough to have seen the 1981 Broadway production with Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton, I can only imagine how incredible that was (FYI I've listed some pertinent info on the four previous Broadway productions and the movie below). I had mistakenly seen the play as a star vehicle for a fierce stage actress of a certain age - - it turns out it's a REALLY GOOD PLAY. Very strong, complex, exciting, rewarding.
I thought the central relationship in the show was the relationship between Regina and her husband, or Regina and her daughter, but it turns out the central relationship is between Regina and her two brothers. All of the animosity, manipulation, and cold-blooded scheming is rooted in that three-pronged sibling rivalry.
My friend Brendan was in the audience on 6/27 and he helpfully quoted one of the greatest lines in the play. Ben (played by Michael McKean) says, “There are hundred of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday.” The audience let out a collective quiet groan, it was chilling. Brendan said it reminded him of a line in the recent Shakespeare in the Park production of *Julius Caesar*: “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” <<Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose!>>
Of course the primary interest in seeing the show twice was seeing how the two lead actors interpret the roles. Laura Linney was a more logical fit for Regina, she was steely and effortless, totally knew her power and how to wield it. She was a lovely Birdie, she highlighted the humor in the role.
Cynthia Nixon impressed me more in both roles. She was a more complex Regina - - her Regina, rather than being innately ruthless and evil, seemed to be a victim of circumstance. Regina acted that way because she had no other choice, she was painted into a corner. I found this less satisfying at the time, and spent that performance thinking that Linney would be a better Regina. But in retrospect I have stronger memories and a richer appreciation of Nixon as Regina.
Will you indulge me in a diversion? It's a longish story and it might sound unrelated, but stick with me. I drank a little bit of alcohol here and there when I was in my 20s - - the occasional beer, glass of wine, or Fuzzy Navel (this was the 80s). Then sometime around the age of 25 I had a beer and it triggered a nasty asthma attack. I experimented with other kinds of alcohol for the next month and had the same experience. Someone told me it was the sulfides in the drinks, who knows if that's true, but in any case I stopped drinking alcohol altogether.
Then, five or six years later, I was at a holiday party and had a cup of eggnog. I took a big swig of it before I knew it had rum in it. And the rum did me no harm. So I tried a glass of wine, bottle of beer, etc, over the next couple weeks, and they were all fine, no asthma attacks. Very odd, it appeared I had outgrown that.
I celebrated my new status as an occasional drinker by asking a few friends to take me to a favorite place and have a beloved drink-and-food pairing. Lara Venard and I went to the Union Terrace and had a brat (with sauerkraut and brown mustard, natch) and a weiss beer. Jeff Sykes and I went to the Greenbush bar and had gin and tonics and a thin-crust pizza (roasted artichokes, feta cheese, and kalamata olives).
And Frank Conway and I went to L'Etoile, probably the fanciest restaurant in Madison, and sat at the bar. The bartender was a sexy redhead, I don't remember her name. I told her I was about to have my first ever glass of red wine, and what would she recommend. She said she couldn't possibly choose a wine for me - - instead, she would give me a taste of each of the five red wines they served by the glass. I had a burgundy, a zinfandel, a sirah, a cabernet, and a merlot. I thought, knowing nothing about wine, that they would all taste the same. I was shocked at how different they tasted. I liked the zinfandel the most, it had a light and fruity flavor that appealed to me. I got a glass of the zinfandel.
I went back a week later. Of course the same bartender was there, and of course she remembered me. She asked if I wanted another glass of zinfandel, or if I wanted to try something else. I told her that I hadn't been so taken with the merlot, but the memory of it had haunted me over the last week. That's how I feel about Cynthia Nixon as Regina - - she wasn't so striking at the time, but the performance has grown on me.
Nixon was also a more satisfying Birdie. She was more fragile and also more lovable. I'm thrilled that she won the Tony for this performance.
Richard Thomas was very strong as Horace, Regina's husband. He held his own with both Reginas, he didn't give an inch. Michael McKean was a special treat as Ben. He was extraordinary, smooth, charming. cutthroat. Michael Benz was wonderful as Leo, Birdie's son, did a great job of playing a callow youth, taking the spotlight when it was his turn but never overshadowing the other actors.
Richard and I remarked on what a treat it was to see the show, a real old fashioned play. Three acts, the setting that the author specified, no music, no video projections. It was thrilling to hear the audience paying attention.
1939 Broadway premiere
Regina: Tallulah Bankhead
Birdie: Patricia Collinge
Horace: Frank Conroy
Director: Herman Shumlin
Regina: Bette Davis
Birdie: Patricia Collinge
Horace: Herbert Marshall
Director: William Wyler
1967 Broadway revival
Regina: Anne Bancroft
Birdie: Margaret Leighton
Horace: Richard Dysart
Director: Mike Nichols
(Also Austin Pendleton as Leo)
1981 Broadway revival
Regina: Elizabeth Taylor
Birdie: Maureen Stapleton
Horace: Tom Aldredge
Director: Austin Pendleton
1997 Broadway revival
Regina: Stockard Channing
Birdie: Frances Conroy
Horace: Kenneth Welsh
Director: Jack O’Brien