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‘The Little Foxes’ review: Good reason to see it twice

Cynthia Nixon, left, as Regina Giddens and Laura

Cynthia Nixon, left, as Regina Giddens and Laura Linney as Birdie Hubbard in Manhattan Theatre Club's "The Little Foxes." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Little Foxes”

WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

INFO $70-$150; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com

BOTTOM LINE Strong revival, delicious alternate casting

The next time anyone challenges the need to have nonprofit Broadway houses alongside the commercial theaters, I’m going to shout out, “The Little Foxes.”

It’s possible to imagine a profit-motivated producer deciding to stage Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drama about a greedy Southern family these days if a megastar — recall Elizabeth Taylor in 1981 — wanted to claw her way through the carnivorous role of Regina Giddens, the Cruella of small-town 1900 society.

But the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club has not merely dared to cast Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon — sublimely intelligent actors, but hardly summer tourist-bait — to play grasping, glamorous Regina and her mousy, quietly alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard in the company’s Broadway venue. To complicate matters deliciously, the two are alternating roles equally through the run.

Thus, audiences with enough interest and disposable income can enjoy and learn much by watching how these very different talents approach such wildly contrasting characters. I’ll tell you my favorite combination in a minute. More interesting than a competition, however, is the crackling seriousness with which director Daniel Sullivan approaches this strongly cast revival of what is generally dismissed these days as a melodramatic old potboiler.

In recent years, we have seen more plays about Hellman (Zoe Caldwell in a one-woman show, Nora Ephron’s “Imaginary Friends”) than performances of her work. In this, Broadway’s first “Foxes” revival in 20 years, I was struck by the snappy, tight writing and the psychological truth in the people who gather in the Giddens’ parlor (beautifully designed by Scott Pask) to manipulate life, death and money.

For me, the more obvious casting of the women is the more satisfying. As Regina, cut once from the family fortune and determined not to have it repeated, Linney has the gutsy, snazzy elegance — and wears designer Jane Greenwood’s gowns as if born in them. And Nixon makes a sublime Birdie, the abused, once-aristocratic wife of the nouveau rich tyrant (Darren Goldstein), her skin so transparent we swear we can see through her to the window pane.

The reverse casting is enlightening, but, in comparison, feels a bit more stagey. Nixon’s Regina doesn’t dominate the room, but is more like a delicate insect who could sting at any moment. Linney’s Birdie is more robust, less breakable, yet still weighed down with the burdens of self-loathing.

The rest of the cast is far more than background, especially the ever-challenging Richard Thomas as Regina’s decent, dying husband and Michael McKean as the smoothest of the mean relatives.

Hellman said she wanted a big funeral, one in which people stood and exclaimed to the world that “something large has left us.” This production does make her absence feel bigger.

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