Review: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon—Alternating ‘Foxes’ on Broadway
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 28, 2017
It’s a great marketing ploy: cast two of the strongest actors of their generation opposite each other in an iconic play, and then have them switch off in the two central roles. If things go well, you just might find your audience seeing the show twice to compare the performances.
That’s what happened in 2000 during the Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, with John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman trading places as the combative brothers in that play. The show sold well with Reilly and Hoffman, due in no small part to the double-dip casting coup. However, when Reilly and Hoffman left, grosses plummeted and the show closed shortly thereafter.
Presumably, the same won’t happen with the respectable new Broadway revival of The Little Foxes, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon take turns as Regina Giddens and Birdie Hubbard. The production is a limited run and is operating under the auspices of nonprofit theater company the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC). (Broadway nonprofits have special deals with the theatrical unions that allow them to operate with lower overhead.)
Plus, The Little Foxes appears to be selling relatively well, at least for a play on Broadway this season: the last three weeks the show has brought in north of $300,000, when a number of the new nonmusical productions are struggling to break the $200,000 mark.
But beyond the commercial reasons for double-casting the show, does the gimmick work in practice? In other words, are the redoubtable Linney and Nixon up to the challenge of switching off in two drastically different roles. Having seen both versions, I would advise that, if you can only see the show once, that you see it when Linney is on as Regina and Nixon is playing Birdie, although to be fair each does a creditable job in the other role.
As anyone familiar with the play knows, Regina Giddons is a formidable woman, fiercely determined to get what she wants, which in this case is funds from her husband to invest in a cotton-processing plant with her two scheming, underhanded brothers. Whereas Birdie, the woebegone wife of Regina’s brother, Oscar, is a faded Southern flower, easily dominated and overly fond of elderberry wine.
Linney comes off a bit too solid as Birdie, as though you know she’s actively trying to appear more wounded. Nixon is far more convincing as Birdie, and is especially affecting during the character’s stunning third-act monologue, becoming a quivering, sniveling wreck in the process. Nixon feels a bit too ragged and wild-eyed as Regina, whereas Linney has much more presence and more of a regal carriage. Linney does appear at times to be playing a bit too much for laughs, but on the whole hers is the far more credible Regina.
As for the play itself, well, The Little Foxes is a bit of a guilty pleasure. It’s a preachy, creaky, potboiler of a play, with starkly drawn two-dimensional characters, bald-faced moralizing, and not a single note of subtlety. But it’s just so much fun to watch. It’s one of those campy, over-the-top plays — like Auntie Mame or The Women — that remains a delight despite its manifest flaws. Or perhaps even because of them.
The current production plays as if director Daniel Sullivan was trying for realism, when the play benefits from more of a melodramatic tone. The production has too many soft edges, and the setting (by Scott Pask) and lighting (by Justin Townsend) feel overly washed out, and the scenes are often under-energized. Both times I saw the show, I wasn’t feeling the subtext, the intrigue, the alliances. I mean, if you decide you’re going to produce a potboiler, you really have to make it boil.
If you’re hoping to catch either the Linney/Nixon or the Nixon/Linney casting combination, you now have an additional two weeks to do so. The MTC recently announced that the production has been extended to July 2nd.
The Little Foxes, presented by the Manhattan Theater Club. Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with two intermissions. Running through July 2, 2017. By Lillian Hellman. Directed by Daniel Sullivan; scenic design by Scott Pask; costume design by Jane Greenwood; lighting design by Justin Townsend; sound design by Fitz Patton; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; makeup design by Tommy Kurzman. Cast: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon (alternating as Regina and Birdie), Darren Goldstein (Oscar), Michael McKean (Ben), Richard Thomas (Horace), David Alford (Mr. Marshall), Michael Benz (Leo Hubbard), Francesca Carpanini (Alexandra), Caroline Stefanie Clay (Addie), and Charles Turner (Cal).
Cover: (l. to r.) Laura Linney (as ‘Regina’) and Cynthia Nixon (as ‘Birdie’) in ‘The Little Foxes;’ photo: Joan Marcus.