BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
All of those 1900s clothes, overstuffed furniture and deep Southern accents are stripped from "The Little Foxes" in director Ivo van Hove's stark new staging of Lillian Hellman's classic American melodrama about a scheming Alabama family.
In recent seasons the director has provided other unusual revivals of venerable plays for New York Theatre Workshop, where the production opened Tuesday. Perhaps van Hove's best known such project was his "A Streetcar Named Desire" in which Blanche spent much of it soaking in a bathtub.
No such wild concept here. (I had envisioned the play possibly staged upon a gigantic staircase.)
Instead of a circa 1900 parlor for the Hubbard family's doings, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld situate the action within a large, purple velvet room sans furnishings. Above, four modernistic glass chandeliers glitter. At center is a stylized representation of a stairway and above that is a video screen.
Dressed in dark, expensive, late 20th century attire, the actors attack the uncut text with contemporary attitudes and often raging, oversized emotions. The middle-aged Hubbard siblings — Ben, Oscar and Regina — roll about on the floor, pull each others' hair and go nose-to-nose in screaming face-offs, suggesting their roughhouse melees as children. Alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie careens around as a sorrowful lady in red who's ever the outsider.
These extreme emotional and physical depictions of the characters are underscored by a spooky sci-fi-ish musical soundtrack that sometimes recalls a blaring cop movie chase sequence and at others an organ murmuring in a funeral home. The no-color lighting shifts intensities between bright and dark.
For all of this blatant stylization, however, van Hove and his excellent actors discover no fresh nuances to Hellman's scathing look at a grasping tribe of predators. The work remains an old-fashioned thriller and probably is more effectively performed when its seething emotions are repressed just a bit by the period gentility of clothes and manners of standard realism.
That said, the always-fascinating Elizabeth Marvel makes a fiery, obviously conniving Regina, Marton Csokas is very suave indeed as Ben and Thomas Jay Ryan is an anxious Oscar. Christopher Evan Welch portrays Regina's dying husband with a terrible wheeze and a haunted air. Tina Benko depicts Birdie with considerable delicacy despite her rambunctious surroundings.
"The Little Foxes" continues through Oct. 31 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.nytw.org.