Lillian Hellman vs. Arthur Miller

THEATER REVIEW: The Little Foxes, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
The Price
, American Airlines Theatre
May 6, 2017, New York

“I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.”

In the published script of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Regina Hubbard says this chilling line to her husband “slowly, calmly.” When I saw Laura Linney a few weeks back at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, she bellowed it at Horace, a fire-blooded end to the second act as the curtain lowered and everyone caught their breath. Daniel Sullivan’s crackerjack revival gets Hellman’s play just right: it’s full of brio and melodrama, and it’s tremendous fun to see this miserable family in all its conniving, backstabbing glory.

The Little Foxes is one of the few 20th-century plays written by a woman that’s gained acceptance into the canon. Lillian Hellman’s found her way into the boy’s club of O’Neill and Williams and Miller and Wilder, and this—her best-remembered play—has enjoyed as many Broadway revivals as Death of a Salesman and Our Town. Since it’s the kind of show that comes back every 20 years, how nice to see Linney share Regina, that delicious role, with Cynthia Nixon. It’s a good reminder that great roles belong to many actors, each of whom adds a little something to the character over time.

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We caught Linney in the lead, and Nixon playing Regina’s sweet but neglected (likely abused) sister-in-law Birdie. Nixon is just right for Birdie; even when she’s trying to be cheerful, it’s clear she’s pretending. In her one big scene, where Birdie admits she’s an alcoholic trapped in a loveless marriage, Nixon plays it so carefully, drawing out the audience’s laughter until her openness becomes too uncomfortable to laugh. “In twenty-two years, I haven’t had a whole day of happiness,” Birdie says. And Nixon is haunting, so close to the edge, so in need of love.

Linney’s Regina has no time for that. She’s in relentless pursuit of getting what’s owed her, and nobody—not her greedy brothers, not her dying husband Horace (a very good Richard Thomas)—will stand in her way. But Linney is a charmer, playing Regina as a woman of great humor and resourcefulness, her broad smile hiding her inner contempt for all the men around her. Linney always has this anxious energy in everyone she plays, and it keeps Regina believably human despite her outrageous behavior.

Her story feels so familiar. She’s every woman who’s had to put up with stupid, selfish men getting ahead and keeping the rewards to themselves for far too long.

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Later that night, we caught a revival (which has since ended) of Arthur Miller’s The Price—which also returns every so many years. It’s a good production, but a little imbalanced. Instead of Daniel Sullivan’s robust take on The Little Foxes, where every word crackled, Miller’s play takes more of a cool, contemplative tone under Terry Kinney’s direction. I wasn’t familiar with The Price before, and the two acts felt almost like separate experiences.

Danny DeVito is probably the reason. He plays Gregory Solomon, an 89-year-old Yiddish dealer hired to assess the Franz brothers’ family furniture, resting in the attic of an old New York brownstone. Once the actor (making his Broadway debut) ascends the stairs into the attic, DeVito commands the stage, leading an amazingly funny one-on-one with Mark Ruffalo (the younger brother, Victor) where they argue the selling price. There’s a scrappiness and mischief to DeVito’s Solomon; he’s an unstoppable old man back in his element, rejuvenated by being useful again. His eccentricity fits DeVito’s willingness to go anywhere for a laugh: he consumes a hard-boiled egg on stage in about thirty seconds, spitting through dialogue while he does it.

The second half of The Price is a more charged confrontation between Victor and his brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub), who haven’t seen each other for sixteen years. The act of selling turns into an unburdening, as Victor tries to get Walter to acknowledge the reasons behind their rift. While Walter went on to medical school, Victor let his own dreams go to take care of their elderly father. There’s a lot to unpack, and Miller doesn’t try to neatly resolve all of their hang-ups and disappointments. Ruffalo and Shalhoub both seem to be searching for answers, taking a quiet and inquisitive approach to their characters. Ruffalo, in particular, seems plagued with self-doubt gnawing at him just under the surface. (His wife Esther, played by Jessica Hecht, isn’t as vitally written; she has her own grievances, but Miller mostly keeps her on the sidelines. This play’s about the men.)

But after DeVito’s electric performance, the brothers’ back-and-forth feels conventional. This might be a drawback of star-casting the comic relief. Ultimately, whatever kept the two brothers apart, I mostly just wanted to know when Solomon was coming back.

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