It's not that reviewers back then didn't recognize a ripping good yarn when they saw it. Swathed in blackmail, betrayal, and murder, the denouement of The Little Foxes is nothing if not enthralling. Rather, the issue lay with the very idea of a plot-driven play, in an era when most people considered movies and pulp fiction (rather than theater) to have cornered the market in suspense. High-stakes melodramas, popular only half a century before, had by then lost some of their appeal to "serious" patrons of the theater (as well as to many writers). The critic John Mason Brown captured the zeitgeist when he wrote in 1940: "Miss Hellman has a genius for plotting. Such close-knit plotting as she is adept at is slightly old-fashioned in the theater; it is a lost art."
How 70 years can alter perceptions. Laird Williamson's taut page-turner of a production of The Little Foxes for ACT proves that a gripping story can go far in the theater today. I, for one, was on the edge of my seat, regardless of my prior familiarity with the drama. But unlike my critical forebears, it was the play's message that left me unimpressed.
The story of The Little Foxes is as white-knuckled (and intricate) as the best kind of thriller. Set in a small Southern town in 1900, the plot revolves around the wealthy Hubbard family's attempt to become even wealthier. Siblings Ben, Oscar, and Regina are desperate to seal a lucrative business deal with Chicago businessman William Marshall, but can't move forward until Regina's banker husband, Horace, returns from Baltimore, where he's been undergoing treatment for a heart condition. Regina tries to exhort a greater slice of the profits from her brothers, and gets her way by agreeing to consider a marital match between her daughter, Alexandra, and Oscar's feckless son, Leo. Regina then sends Alexandra to Baltimore to fetch Horace. Before Horace and Alexandra get back, Leo and Oscar hatch a plan to steal Horace's bonds in order to complete the transaction with Marshall behind Horace's back. When Horace returns, he discovers his relatives' ruse. Despite his intense fatigue and ongoing sickness, Horace sets in motion his own vengeful scheme. And that's just what transpires in the first two acts. I won't even get into what happens in Act 3.
With its rhythmic drive, eloquent use of space and design, and mercilessly seductive performances, Williamson's production capitalizes on Hellman's capitalistic tale. Sashaying about Robert Blackman's blood-red set, with its cold marble walls and stiff velvet furnishings belying its devilish color palette, Oscar, Ben, and Regina behave like they own the whole world from the moment the play begins. They're completely self-centered. They'd ransom their own children for gold. And yet two of the three come across as almost sympathetic. Robert Parsons' Oscar is a study in cartoon villainy, but there's something compelling about Jacqueline Antaramian and Jack Willis' embodiments of Regina and Ben. Willis marries a bullish attitude with a drawling Southern charm, while Antaramian (her character's sparkly dark soul echoed in her fabulous black sequined gown) makes blackmail look like a display of inner strength. The story's impact owes much to the actors' ability to create perfect tension between the repulsive and the attractive.
Williams' direction similarly keeps the slithering lines of Hellman's plot snaking along. The action never once lets up, and this flow somehow masks the narrative contrivances. Williams' clever blocking also helps increase the drama: In one high-stakes moment in Act 2, for example, Horace (Nicholas Hormann) stands halfway up the sweeping staircase at the back of the stage and accuses Regina of destroying the town with her bloodsucking schemes. Regina stands at the front, facing the audience, with her back to her husband. The simple placement of bodies in space expresses the broken state of the characters' relationship. The hatred between husband and wife engulfs the scene, creating even more suspense for what will follow. Only once, when Horace staggers up the stairs, clutching his throat, having taken a turn for the worse in Act 3, does the director let farcical melodrama loose. This loss of directorial control is especially unfortunate: At this climax of the play, the audience's response should be a gasp, not a giggle.
The dramatist's narrative keeps us engrossed, but the same cannot be said of her social commentary. In our own "greed is good" era, Hellman's vision of "people who eat the Earth and eat all the people on it" doesn't wield the same force as it did when American capitalism was on the rise, a beacon of hope. We've simply been through too many corporate scandals in recent years to experience a jolt at the thought that people can hurt others in their pursuit of money. Even the play's call to action fails to make an impression: Tacked on to the end of the drama, Alexandra's idea of standing up to the "Earth-eaters" (as she claims she will do in her final rousing speech) feels at best like an afterthought, at worst, a cliche. Hellman's anti-apathetic rallying cry is pertinent, but the playwright delivers too little, too late.
The most exciting kind of theater communicates something important about the world we live in while telling us a great story. The Little Foxes may once have achieved both. Today it's just a terrific potboiler to be relished on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a bucket of popcorn, like The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man. I think ACT's PR folks understand how to market this play: You need only look at the production's black-and-white film noir-style publicity poster, or join one of the special pre-Saturday matinee walking tours about Hellman and her longtime lover, San Francisco resident and detective-novel king Dashiell Hammett, to get a feel for what this play is about. The final tour takes place this Saturday. Check it and Hellman's nasty fairy tale out.