- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Greed disguised as capitalism never goes out of style.

Lillian Hellman’s classic play, “The Little Foxes,” a dark tale about three avaricious siblings struggling for control over their dwindling family fortune, is still perfectly relevant, more than a century after the horrible Hubbards enriched themselves by exploiting their neighbors and workers in their Southern town.

Better still, unconventional Belgian director Ivo Van Hove has shaken up this story of familial backstabbing and greed, powerfully deconstructing it into 21st century relevance, in a stylish, compelling new production at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop.

Van Hove focuses with laserlike insight on the power struggles among his well-balanced cast of characters. While maintaining the repressive social order and superficial gentility of the still-bitter, post-Civil war South in the year 1900, he dresses the horrible Hubbard family in sleek, dark, modern clothing.

Now floating in time, their callous disregard for everyone else becomes eerily reminiscent of certain modern-day banking practices. The production has a few melodramatic moments but Hove doesn’t treat these predators with much sentimentality, instead letting Hellman’s incisive dialogue speak for itself.

We meet the Hubbards at home, at a dinner party which is a clever exposition of family history, much of it unpleasant. All Hellman’s characters are staged to reveal their true, generally barbaric natures. The Hubbard brothers, Ben and Oscar, even boast to a new business partner about their cleverness in “taking over” by marriage the plantation of Oscar’s genteel, formerly aristocratic wife, Birdie.

Marton Csokas as Ben and Thomas Jay Ryan as Oscar are well-dressed brutes, unctuous and superficially polite in public, while their true ruthless natures glitter in their eyes. In private, especially with their female relatives, the Hubbard men are almost uniformly sexist, abusive and selfish. The women must use whatever wiles they can muster to trick their way into survival.

Elizabeth Marvel is cold and commanding as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the central character. With every flicker of expression or sly sideways glance, Marvel stunningly conveys her character’s reptilian personality and resilience. On constant guard against betrayals by her own brothers, and seemingly trapped by societal restrictions on women, Regina nonetheless plots to manipulate everyone to her own advantage. This includes her gravely ill husband, Horace (nicely played by Christopher Evan Welch as weary but determined ) and her teenage daughter, Alexandra (a delicate portrayal of emotional confusion by Cristin Milioti.)

Tina Benko wears a poignant air of despair in her outstanding portrayal of Birdie, who is beaten down literally and figuratively by her husband and his family. Bravely dressed in red, Benko’s delicate Birdie, exuding weakened defiance, is the only spot of color on the stage.

Tension builds as Horace tries to protect his daughter from her mother, while the Hubbards’ internecine treachery become increasingly vile. Protective servant Addie (Lynda Gravatt) warns Zan that “There are people who eat the earth… and other people who stand around and watch them eat it.”

With almost no furniture on stage, except for an occasional chair, the actors must frequently sit, argue and even roll around on the floor. Van Hove and his production designer, Jan Versweyveld, created a stark set of one large empty room, completely encased by malevolently violet walls and carpeting.

But the Hubbards have built the unforgiving walls themselves, just as America’s financial community knowingly created complex toxic assets for global consumption. Van Hove’s outstanding vision of Hellman’s dreadful characters makes the audience hope that sometimes, bad things might happen to bad people.

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Online: http://www.nytw.org