Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s juicy drama about a scheming Southern family, gets a bizarrely misguided and overly stylized Off Broadway revival at the hands of veteran director Ivo van Hove. Hellman’s show always has the potential to dip into melodrama, but van Hove seems to accentuate its shortcomings with broad characterizations, an odd B-movie-ish underscore (sound design by Thibaud Delpeut), and mismatched performances that frequently fail for an unusual reason: volume. Some of the actors seem to be mumbling their lines under their breath, while others fly off into shouting at the first hint of emotion.
In terms of naturalism, too, the performances are all over the map. Elizabeth Marvel, who memorably played Blanche Dubois in a van Hove production of A Streetcar Named Desire set mostly in a bathtub, here plays Regina, the scrappy, sometimes histrionic sister of scheming brothers who need her ailing husband’s money for a business venture but are all too happy to cut her out of the profits if they get the chance. Christopher Evan Welch plays the hubby, Horace, in a reserved, mostly realistic fashion, while Marton Csokas, as the chief schemer of the brothers, Ben, delights in his malevolence so much that he seems to be twisting an invisible mustache. Thomas Jay Ryan, as the other brother, Oscar, generally falls somewhere in between the two performance styles — except when van Hove has him punching his flighty wife, Birdie (Tina Benko), in the gut for warning Regina’s daughter about one of his schemes. He punches her hard enough to knock her down. Three times. (In Hellman’s text, tellingly, Oscar merely slaps her.)
The physical production provides its own set of distractions — and takes its own liberties. A video monitor hangs prominently above the central staircase, broadcasting off-stage action to remarkably little effect. Four chandeliers with distractingly bright bulbs hang from the monochromatic set, whose walls are covered in a rich burgundy fabric (with matching burgundy carpet) that Regina and others repeatedly run their hands over. The set has been stripped of virtually all furniture — despite every indication that this is a wealthy estate of Southern cotton-growers — a decision that seriously undermines a late scene in which Hellman has a wheelchair-bound Oscar make a fateful scramble for the stairs. There’s no wheelechair — indeed, Welch has been walking around the set for much of the production — and so later references to his incapacity are puzzling, to say the least.
Reinventing classics is one thing. But despite some momentary pleasures (Benko’s Birdie is a hoot), van Hove has made a minor mid-20th-century theatrical gem virtually incomprehensible. C
(Tickets: www.TicketCentral.com or 212-279-4200)