The spoils of war — in this case the Civil War, in a small Alabama town — begin to rot in New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play, “The Little Foxes.”
A family of merchants, accustomed to lying, cheating and stealing, schemes with a Northern industrialist to build a factory near the local cotton fields. If they succeed, they’ll be very rich, and they natter on about what they’ll do with the money.
Dutch director Ivo Van Hove and a European design team strip the play bare, setting it in an empty space with carpeted floors and walls, a simple staircase and a gold picture frame in which what happens outside the room is revealed on video. Though its period is 1900, the fine actors, notably Elizabeth Marvel, Tina Benko and Christopher Evan Welch, wear very contemporary clothes: sleek gowns and von Furstenberg-esque wrap dresses for the women, suits and ties for the men.
The script is pretty melodramatic, and these production decisions threaten to tilt it into the realm of soap opera. Watching the white characters crawl on the floor, wallop each other and demean black people reminds us very graphically that the love of money is the root of all evil. The play jars our sensibilities with its raw depictions of human greed, racism and violence. The 20th century, it makes clear, was just a rehearsal for this one.