23 May 2017

'The Roundabout'

In my last play report (“The Little Foxes,” posted on 13 May), I confessed to a fondness for the old-time well-made plays of the middle of the last century, and I named several American playwrights whose works I particularly enjoy.  I wasn’t thinking trans-Atlanticly at the time I wrote that report, so let me amend my statement to include some British writers of the same era: Noël Coward, John Osborne, Emlyn Williams, and Terrence Rattigan (in small doses).  Some of J. B. Priestley’s plays fall into this grouping (An Inspector Calls; Time and the Conways), so when I got an announcement for the 59E59 Theaters’ presentation of Priestley’s The Roundabout as part of the production house’s annual Brits Off Broadway series (4 April through 2 July this year), I suggested to my frequent theater companion, Diana, that we consider seeing it.  (Diana is much more attracted to this kind of material than am I.  She likes art that follows rules.)

So, on Friday evening, 12 May, Diana and I met at the theater complex on East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues for the 8 p.m. curtain of Priestley’s 1931 comedy of manners, the play’s long-delayed U.S. première production.  The co-production of three London theater troupes, the Cahoots Theatre Company, the Other Cheek, and the Park Theatre, started previews in Theater A, the 196-seat house of the three-theater venue, on 20 April and opened to the press on 30 April; the visiting production was due to close on 20 May.  (The same show, with one cast change, ran at the Park Theatre in London from 24 August to 24 September 2016.) 

The Roundabout is a recently rediscovered Priestley play, written in 1931 as a vehicle for a 24-year-old Peggy Ashcroft (1907-91; later made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, or CBE, in 1956), but the playwright didn’t finish the script.  (The Roundabout was written a year before the playwright’s first West End success, Dangerous Corner.  In other words, it was a tyro effort.)  The next year, Roundabout was produced at the Playhouse Liverpool (without Ashcroft) for its Christmas season and was subsequently mounted at various regional theaters around the U.K, but it was never performed in London until the 2016 co-production at the Park, where the play, in its first U.K. revival since 1932, was generally well received.  (Especially well reviewed was the performance of Bessie Carter, an up-and-coming young actress, in the role Priestley intended for Ashcroft.  Carter is the only member of the British troupe who stayed behind in England, replaced here by Emily Laing.)  The presentation at 59E59 is the play’s only U.S. production on record, making it the U.S. première. 

Found by Hugh Ross, director of the current production, in his father’s collection of Priestley books and papers, The Roundabout: A Comedy in Three Acts had been published in London by Samuel French in 1933, an edition that’s long been out of print, and has now been republished by Oberon Books (London, 2017; also available as a NOOK e-book).  Not only has the play never been filmed (not surprising, given its stage history), but I also found no record of a television version, even in Britain—so there’s no video of The Roundabout

John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England.  In his nearly-90-year life, he became world famous as an novelist, playwright, essayist, broadcaster, scriptwriter, social commentator, and man of letters, whose career spanned the 20th century.  Many of his writings are leftist and critical of the British government (though The Roundabout makes targets of humor of both the aristocracy and communists.)  The writer chastised George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in a 1941 essay in Horizon for the older playwright’s support of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (at the time, a partner with Hitler in a German-Soviet non-aggression pact); in 1949, however, George Orwell (1903-1950) put Priestley on his list of writers he considered too left-leaning to be allowed to write for the government’s anti-communist propaganda agency.  

As a newspaper columnist and critic, Priestley covered a variety of subjects and his writing revealed his anti-materialism and anti-mechanization.  His many published works include the novels Good Companions (1929) and Angel Pavement (1930), and the plays Time and the Conways (1937), When We Are Married (1938), and An Inspector Calls (1945), to name just a few of his many titles.  (Though The Roundabout is a rather straightforward well-made play structurally, as you’ll see, the plays that came after are experimental, particularly in terms of the depiction of  time.)  Priestley’s other books include the autobiographical Margin Released (1962),  Man and Time (1964), Essays of Two Decades (1968), The Edwardians (1970), and The English (1973).  He declined a peerage in 1965 and a knighthood in 1969, but accepted the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.  He died on 14 August 1984 at the age of 89 (one month before his 90th birthday). Among his many awards and honors is a larger-than-life-sized bronze statue, commissioned after the writer’s death by the city of Bradford and unveiled in 1986 in front of the National Media Museum in Priestley’s hometown.  Priestley’s 1935 play Cornelius, also little known, was presented in Brits Off Broadway in 2013.

The playwright’s son, Tom (born the year The Roundabout débuted), said his father “described [the play] as ‘a very light comedy . . . a little less intellectually negligible than most very light comedies.’  Now at last,” Tom Priestley added, “we have a chance to judge.”  It’s a two-hour-and-20-minute three-acter, played here as two acts, with acts one and two combined, and it’s got an almost impossible plot to describe—all about the British aristocracy and commies (now there’s a combo!).  One New York reviewer quoted on the poster compared it to “the wit of Oscar Wilde, the frivolity of Coward, and the saltiness of Shaw” sort of all gemischt.  (Another proclaimed that “it is really a 1930’s rewrite of Shaw’s pre-W.W. I comedy Heartbreak House reset at the beginning of the Great Depression with versions of all the same characters,” but that’s a huge stretch.)  As Tom Priestley said, now we’ll see. 

The play’s set on a Saturday afternoon in 1931, a time when the British economy was in freefall as a consequence of the early days of the Great Depression.  Even among leftists—remembering that Priestley was a socialist—belief in the Soviet Union had eroded because of news of Stalin’s show trials.  The playwright attempted to weave these world-shaking occurrences together by depicting a farcically hectic day at the country house of Lord Richard Kettlewell (Brian Protheroe), a wealthy investor.  First, his portfolio is now virtually worthless, a situation he finds laughable.  Second, the house is invaded by all manner of mostly uninvited—and largely unwelcome—visitors who all decide to stay for lunch.  Already in residence is Alec Grenside (Ed Pinker), a young artist recommended by Kettlewell’s estranged wife to decorate some panels in the manor, and old friend Churton “Chuffy” Saunders (Hugh Sachs), a classic society hanger-on (and the only visitor who’s actually been invited) with a ready tongue and a sharp wit (think Oscar Wilde manqué).  Soon to show up unexpectedly are the daughter, Pamela (Emily Laing), he hasn’t seen in 10 years, now a devoted communist who’s been in the USSR working in a candy factory—terrible candy, by the way, says Pamela (though I found Soviet hard candy pretty good when I had a taste of it some 50-odd years ago)—and her companion and fellow ideologue who goes by the designation of Comrade Staggles (Steven Blakeley). 

Arriving as expected with some papers is Kettlewell’s secretary, a very young and callow Farrington Gurney (Charlie Field in his professional stage debut)—who just happens to conceive an immediate crush on Pamela.  They’re followed by the former grand dame of the neighborhood, Lady Knightsbridge (Richenda Carey), who circulates among the other local peers looking for employment for her lately straitened aristo friends, and Hilda Lancicourt (Carol Starks), Kettlewell’s current mistress whom he’s about to jettison as a money-saving move and who’s come in response to the letter Kettlewell sent to . . . well, dump her.  Pamela reveals that she’s also invited her mother, Lady Kettlewell (Lisa Bowerman), from whom His Lordship’s been separated for several years; it’s an announcement he doesn’t relish.  Rounding out the crowded household are Kettlewell’s two servants, his butler, Parsons (Derek Hutchinson), and the parlor maid, Alice (Annie Jackson), two of the most upright souls you’re ever likely to meet.  As Shaw pointed out, after all, the middle and working classes have the stronger sense of propriety—afflicted, as the great Irish playwright put it, with bourgeois morality; the poor and the aristocracy are less burdened since the poor can’t afford to have morals and the gentry are above such petty concerns.

Priestley’s portrait of a Depression-era dysfunctional extended family descends quickly into what I can only describe as a French farce as written by Wilde with a side of Shavian-lite political and social commentary, all enacted in the style of a Cowardy comedy of manners.  The drawing-room set may not have quite five doors (there are only three portals—no actual doors), but it might as well have with all the coming and going.  (A roundabout, by the way, is British English for both a merry-go-round and a traffic circle.)  Comrade Staggles, who looks like a prototypical commie student with round, steel-rimmed glasses, a student cap, work boots, and a scraggly beard, can’t help himself from making passionate advances to any woman he meets, from soon-to-be ex-mistress Lancicourt to housemaid Alice—none of whom will have any of it.  Lancicourt and Lady Kettlewell take every opportunity to button-hole His Lordship, as does his daughter, whose commitment to communism is more adolescent rebellion (she’s 22) than Leninist-Marxist conviction.  Young Gurney, the secretary, is Red Pam’s opposite number on the capitalist side of the debate—and he has a streak of schoolboy braggadocio that leads to a bout of fisticuffs in the garden with Staggles.  When Lady Knightsbridge learns that Kettlewell’s daughter is a communist, her immediate response is to inquire, “Is there any money in it?”  Chuffy, who has no reason to be anywhere in particular, pops in and out to deliver amusing, but lightweight aphorisms—though they’re still the best lines in the play!  In fact, Chuffy’s the best part in the play, with butler Parsons, who, with Alice, make frequent appearances both in pursuit of their household duties and to roil the overloaded plot.  (Parsons reminded me a little of William, the waiter in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.)

In the end, little has changed on the socio-political front: the aristos are still aristos and their hangers-on are still hanging on, perhaps mildly chastened, and the servants remain servants.   A subplot that might have upset this order when Parson seems to have won a fortune on a sweepstakes race falls apart on a contrivance—Priestley seems to have chickened out.  Comrade Staggles comes to enjoy the luxuries wealth—and a little (too much) high-end brandy—provide.  The real conclusion is that old lovers are reunited as Mère and Père Kettlewell, maneuvered by Pamela, discover  their separation was a mistake--and new lovers, Pamela and the handsome young artist, Alec, turn out to have known each other all along and are brought together probably by the connivance of Pamela’s mother (who, you remember, sent Grenside to her husband in the first scene).

You got all that?  (And that’s just a précis.  I can’t manage a detailed retelling—and you couldn’t follow it if I did.)  It is a day, to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, crowded with incident.

I found the play mildly amusing, but not outright hilarious, though Diana liked it.  It’s more silly frippery than pointed comedy and the comparisons with Wilde, Coward, and Shaw are more about surface appearances than dramaturgical substance.  It doesn’t help that the topics Priestley is covering in The Roundabout are tied to the play’s time—the Depression, the potential of social change in Britain between the World Wars, the surge in popularity of Soviet communism before the revelations of the Stalinist atrocities—which doesn’t speak so much to our era.  This renders the Brits Off Broadway presentation more a curious look back, both at a period of British playwriting and at the work of one particular playwright of that time who’s less often produced than some of his peers, than a noteworthy experience in the theater.

I also feel that the comedy here’s played wrong.  The actors all approach the play more like Coward than anything else.  (Chuffy Saunders so resembles Wilde that I have to believe Priestley intentionally drew the portrait.  The somewhat stout Sachs plays him as slightly fey, in the vein of a certain stereotype of the effete aristo, which only reinforces the impression.)  The approach is flippant—all the earnest commie speechifying, is off-hand and light—but I think if it were played as if the characters—Laing’s Pamela and Blakeley’s Staggles are the two on that side of the ledger—were in earnest, it’d be funnier, especially in 2017.  I mean, how can anyone actually believe what the Bolshies were spouting back in the ’30s?  Really? 

The aristos probably should still be superficial—it suits them, especially when they’re all concerned about losing their money in the Depression.  (Here’s a coincidence: I just saw a play from the same decade about the merchant class gaining wealth, and now a play about the upper class losing it!  Both were written by left-leaning dramatists, though one author was an American woman and the other a British man, and one’s a melodrama and the other a farce—and the plays are set in different eras, 30 years apart.)  The two servants in the home, Hutchinson’s Parsons and Jackson’s Alice, seem to get the style for their characters just right, however.  As a result, they, plus the Wildean Chuffy, are the best in the ensemble, and the most memorable characters.

Once again, I was dealing with an ensemble cast—this one not as tightly blended as Daniel Sullivan’s Little Foxes company or Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Jitney cast.  Like Little Foxes, however, two characters dominate the plot, Lord Kettlewell and Pamela, so Protheroe and Laing maintain the audience’s focus as the other characters swirl around them, weaving in and out of the narrative.  Protheroe’s a tad stiff as His Lordship, which lends an air of incredibility to the character’s protestations of encroaching poverty.  Protheroe’s physical characterization and his line delivery never vary much, making Kettlewell seem programmed rather than reactive.  Laing makes Pamela a flibbertigibbet, which is fine in context, and she has a slight overbite that gives her the appearance of a mischievous little girl.

Sachs has such a good time with Chuffy that it’s hard to find fault with the character—so I won’t.  He has all the best lines and the actor delivers them with delicious panache.  Of course, Chuffy has no reason to be in the play except to accomplish this—but, then, a real-life Churton Saunders would have been superfluous, too, except to amuse his hosts and keepers.  Blakeley couldn’t be more type-cast as Staggles—even without the beard and the glasses he looks like central casting’s idea of a student commie, a cross between Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon.  His sincerity as a communist might be questionable in this performance, but his neediness as a young man who clearly never fit in in any social circle is demonstrable.  Staggles’s opposite number in a sense is Field’s Farrington Gurney, as impetuous a fellow as you’re likely to meet anywhere (well, except maybe today’s White House, but that’s a different matter).  Field, who bears a remarkable resemblance to comedian Craig Kilbourne, plays Gurney as slightly dull-witted but open-faced: he doesn’t think deeply, but he feels strongly.  (He’d probably be labeled an incipient upper-class twit, if Priestley were that way inclined.)

So far, the characters are all from the period comedy of manners stock company; you’ve met them many times before in one play or movie or another—and the performances, while sturdy, are quite in line with expectations.  At the outset, the same holds true for Kettlewell’s two servants, Parsons and Alice.  Then Parsons gets word that he’s picked the winner in the sweepstakes and will come into a small fortune.  He appears drunk to inform Lord Kettlewell he’ll be leaving the estate’s service.  (He wants to buy a country house to convert into a weekend hotel, and Kettlewell immediately offers to sell the nascent entrant to the middle class his own manor.)  All of a sudden, Hutchinson transforms from a stock character actor into an intriguing figure with a backstory and an inner life we hadn’t seen hint of before.  Alas, it only lasts one scene, as Priestley contrives to pull the rug out from under poor Parsons with some nonsense about the government’s deciding precipitously that the prize is too much for the economy to bear and canceling it, making a Tantalus out of the unhappy butler, shown the promised land of entrepreneurship and swiftly returned to domestic service.  Hutchinson makes the double character shift with assurance and credibility within the context of the play.  Would that Priestley had braved the uncertainties and gone with the reversal of fortune.  It might have been great fun.

Polly Sullivan, credited as the production’s designer, appears to have been responsible for both the set (lit by David Howell) and the costumes (supervised by Holly Henshaw), and both were fine—the clothing more revealing than the scenery.  The costumes were appropriate to the period and the individual characters, from Pamela’s and Staggles’s proletarian worker-attire to the three upper-class dames’ elegant country-afternoon dress, but the house’s furnishings seemed Spartan for a peer—unless we’re supposed to assume Kettlewell’s been selling off the furniture (or burning it for fuel).  Not only was Parsons called upon to move a chair about to accommodate visitors because there weren’t enough in the conversation hub, but these nobs, who’d certainly never deign to sit on a wooden bench except outdoors, often had to perch on what looked like long, low tables on either side of the drawing room; there was even a table lamp on each one to make it look like Kettlewell’s houseguests were sitting on narrow coffee tables.  Coward would surely shudder at the sight!  (I don’t know how big any of the three co-producing troupes is, but this is the kind of staging decision that often marks Off-Off-Broadway shows in New York.  Budget and space limitations are the usual rationale.)

Overall, The Roundabout was a pleasant evening in the theater—I can’t honestly say I didn’t enjoy the play or the performance; I’m glad I took the opportunity to see it.  I just feel that director Ross missed the boat a little on the presentation style.  (Of course, I could be way off base, but we’ll never know.)

Show-Score surveyed 25 reviews, but a number of them were for the London mounting.  On the basis of 17 reviews of the Brits Off Broadway production, the average rating as of 21 May was 69, of which 59% of the notices were positive, 23% were mixed, and 18% were negative.  The site’s high score was 90, of which there were three for the local production (including the New York Times) and the low score was 20 (for the website Woman Around Town).  I’ll be covering 13 notices in my round-up.

After observing in the Epoch Times that communism is “categorically the most deadly form of government ever,” Mark Jackson declared,

So it can safely be said that breezy debates about the virtues of communism versus capitalism, in a high-twit-factor, three-act, moldy British drawing-room comedy—already so second-rate in its inception that it’s only being revived now, after its abandonment in 1932—is hardly the place to do the topic justice.

Listing all the plot twists, Jackson asked, “Will you care about any of it?”  Despite “quite a talented cast,” the Epoch review-writer asserted, “The problem is that it’s just not terribly funny or impactful,” adding, “It’s quite a bland offering.”  Jackson, though, found one positive note in the play: “Priestley does get credit for presenting two communists [sic] types: the holier-than-thou Tartuffe-like scoundrel and the youthful idealist who swallows socialist rhetoric hook, line, and sinker.”  But even that accomplishment is incomplete: “Unfortunately, since the playwright’s social commentary extends to the lord and ladies as well, his apt criticism of the far left is so undercut as to be insipid.”  In conclusion, the Epochal reviewer wrote that “this particular genre of play doesn’t age well, but if you’re a huge fan of, say, ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ [sic] and, like Chuffy, pine for spatterdashes [we know them simply as ‘spats’] and top hats, you’ll enjoy ‘The Roundabout’ immensely.”  (I think Jackson has overthought this slight work, but that’s his take; his review received a 45 on Show-Score, one of three negative notices.  My only serious objection to his opinion is the implied disparagement of Wilde’s Earnest, one of my all-time favorite plays—the only play I’ve directed twice.  I’ve worn spats only once in my life, however—part of a costume for some period play I no longer remember.)

Andy Webster, in contrast, declared in the New York Times (which scored 90, you’ll recall), “This sparkling, impeccably staged play . . . will be catnip to ‘Downton Abbey’ devotees, with equal doses of humor and insight.”  The Timesman explained that “plot threads and characters abound” in the “social mosaic” of The Roundabout.  He warned, though, “Some period conventions creak.” but added that “the production is well served by its costume supervisor” and director Ross “adds a soupçon of farce to the percolating proceedings.”  Webster concluded, “Throughout, Priestley gently reminds us of the ephemerality of affluence” while his “words, with their generous, sympathetic regard for human nature, cast a binding glow over the production.”  The unnamed theater reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Time” section described the play as “a classic roundelay, but instead of romantic shenanigans the comic intrigue turns on social, financial, and political concerns.”  The review-writer dubbed the cast “eleven accomplished farceurs” and singled out Carey as Lady Knightsbridge and, especially, Sachs “as a family friend whose every line pierces the hypocrisy around him, including his own.”

On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter, noting that Hugh Ross’s production of The Roundabout is “smoothly staged,” found the play “offers enough nutrition for a band of first-rate thespians to feast on.”  Nonetheless, Leiter felt that “it’s still second-rate Priestley, far too long and chatty . . . for its wafer-thin, drawing room/romantic comedy plot, leavened by political satire.”  The TLS blogger added, “There’s some enjoyment to be derived from Priestley’s then timely and sometimes still pertinent observations on social and economic matters, but the relatively few laughs are mostly of the polite, muffled kind,” and “the first act tends to drag . . . with no real stakes established to keep us in suspense during the intermission.”  Leiter concluded that “the resurrection of Priestley’s comedy is mainly to be recommended for its acting.”  Howard Miller of Talkin’ Broadway reminded us (as I’ve said on occasion), “Not all resurrected and dusted-off plays from yesteryear reveal themselves to be glittering lost diamonds.”  He pronounced The Roundabout “a lovely garnet or topaz,” however, labeling it “a charming and well-performed work with an undercurrent of social criticism.”  The “well-oiled ensemble . . . does a fine job of keeping the lighter-than-air domestic comedy floating stylishly and smoothly.”  Though he found The Roundabout “a parade of comic turns in a play with the barest of plots,” Miller reported that “the fine-tuned performances by the entire cast . . . raises The Roundabout above the ordinary.”  He concluded, “While The Roundabout may not exactly be a newly rediscovered treasure unearthed from the good old days, it provides enough delights to make it well worth the visit,” adding that The Roundabout “is a must-see, a surprising, sojourn into the realm of lightweight comedy.” 

Describing the play as “a drawing-room comedy . . . in the style of [W. Somerset] Maugham, [Frederick] Lonsdale or Coward but with a bit more political content,” TheaterScene’s Gluck declared that The Roundabout “now seems rather dated and beside the point” after 85 years; even Ross’s “elegant and graceful production can’t disguise the fact that the play seems to be two generations late in arriving.”  The TS reviewer observed that though “the play seems to have something to say about economics and political systems, it is simply a very light romantic comedy” and Ross’s “production is quite proficient and fast-paced, but the characters are generic and we don’t learn much about them.”  Despite its “polished production,” The Roundabout is “little more than a dated drawing room comedy” which “pretends to be making a statement about British class structure and the economic and social changes.”  The play “ is both very lightweight and very much a period piece of an earlier age,” and though the “repartee is good . . ., the play is not particularly witty nor does it offer memorable one liners.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman reported, “Incessant flippant chatter is crisply deployed along with archaic social commentary in” The Roundabout, little “more than a passing, or perhaps passably socially aware divertissement.” 

Marina Kennedy dubbed The Roundabout “a truly charming play” on Broadway World and the “comings and goings of [the] colorful characters, the clash of social classes, and the fast-paced, clever dialogue create a totally entertaining and engaging theatrical experience.”  Ross’s “staging is superb and the show’s cast shines bright”; Kennedy reported, “You’ll love the cast of The Roundabout. They are funny, lively and authentic.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Rocamora quipped, “Unearthing old theatre gems is like digging for truffles—and British director Hugh Ross has found one”—though I’m not so sure making a comparison to a fungus is especially complimentary.  Dubbing the play “a long-lost treasure,” the Theater Pizzazz review-writer asserted that it “holds the promise of an entertaining comedy of manners—but delivers far more.”  She explained, “In the midst of all [the] frivolity, playwright Priestley offers a sharp, satirical birds-eye view of an anxious era when England’s social order is changing.” 

On Theatre Reviews Limited, David Roberts asserted that “the comedic stuff” of The Roundabout is the way the characters “collide with one another in deliciously hilarious flights of fantasy all the time challenging the decorum of polite society.”  “Under Hugh Ross’s well paced direction,” the TRL reviewer found, “the cast is uniformly engaging.”  He affirmed, “It is the unpredictability of [the] parallel story lines that makes ‘The Roundabout’ consummately entertaining,” though “Priestly chooses not to explore the issues he introduces with any depth.”  Roberts concluded that the play “is a delightful romp around the roundabout well worth the trip.”  In the other notice rated a negative 45, Theatre Is Easy’s Eleanor J. Bader said in her “Bottom Line” that The Roundabout is a “comedic, but inconsequential, look at upper class decadence and Communist sympathizers in 1930s Great Britain.”  It’s “played for laughs, rather than ideas,” asserted Bader, though she found Staggles and Gurney “obnoxious” for their “relentless womanizing” and “the play’s comedic impact . . . tempered by Priestley’s positioning of Pamela, Comrade Staggles, and Kettlewell as equally deluded.”  Furthermore, Bader found “the juxtaposition” of “the idealism and utopian dreams of young Communists with  the unscrupulous behavior of Kettlewell and his business associates” “maddening.”  Her conclusion was that “The Roundabout is well acted and well staged.  I wish that were enough, but it’s not.  Despite the still-timely reference to sexual misconduct, the play is dated; despite some terrific one-liners, its assets are insufficient to recommend what is ultimately a stale production.”

The lowest Show-Score rating was the 20 received by Alix Cohen’s notice on Woman Around Town.  Characterizing the play as “[o]stensibly a lightweight drawing room satire about changing social order,” Cohen asserted, “In the hands of George Bernard Shaw, we might’ve seen the classes spar with meaningful illumination.  Were the piece by Noel Coward, then it might’ve been sharply witty.”  Instead, she complained, “we’re subjected to a tedious two hours in the hands of milquetoast Kettlewell, almost-ran Chuffy, bratty, tantrum-throwing, mischief-making Pamela, and boorish, cliché Comrade Staggles.  (Other characters are frankly negligible.)”  Of the cast, Cohen asserted that “aside from flickers, those onstage range from poor to irritating to ho-hum”; “there’s not a flicker of character definition, actors often tune out when not speaking.”  The staging “is so heavy handed,” she found, “movement has no motivation except audience view, irony goes by practically unnoticed.”  Even the set “has no attractions” and the costumes, fine for the men, are “uniformly unflattering apparel for women.”

On the Huffington Post, David Finkle announces “great news”—first, because The Roundabout “has just resurfaced” and, second, because it’s been revived “in a grand production, directed exactly as it should be by Hugh Ross and with precisely the right cast.”  Characterizing the play as “a drawing room comedy not unlike others from the period,” Finkle continued: “Nevertheless, in its way it was already accomplished, and in its way it’s now dated.”  Then the HP reviewer added, “Dated, yes, but possessing the kind of charm those plays continue to hold, rather like the perfume of faded flowers.”  Summing up, Finkle affirmed:

The true value of The Roundabout is that it’s Priestley getting laughs at the expense of the upstart English who’ve jumped on the Communist bandwagon.  To some very large extent, he’s defanging the bear-toothed threat of the age, a threat he might have taken more seriously.  But if he had, The Roundabout wouldn’t be half the fun it is, and that excuses plenty.

18 May 2017

Yayoi Kusama

On 23 February of this year, a new retrospective exhibit of the 78-year career of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama opened at the Smithsonian‘s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  It’s attracted quite a bit of attention, both from the press and from museum-goers—which isn’t bad for an 88-year-old artist who first hit the scene in the U.S. in the late ’50s.  According to a New York Times report on 27 March, the Hirshhorn recorded “the highest attendance in 40 years” during the first month of Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and about one third of those visitors (about 57,000 people) have come to see the Kusama show.  Though the artist has been deemed significant for the whole of her career, Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu pointed out that “it has only been in recent years that [Kusama] exhibitions have consistently broken museum attendance records and attracted enormous attention.” 

Back in 2004, my late mother and I went up to the Whitney Museum of American Art (then at Madison Avenue and 75th Street) for that year’s Biennial principally because Kusama was included in the show.  At 75, she was by far the oldest artist featured in the show; promoted as a kind of retrospective of modern art from the ’60s to the present, the 2004 Biennial was mostly really new stuff.  Most of the artists in the exhibit were in their 40’s or younger—the only other “older” artist in the show I identified was David Hockney (portraits, garden and interior watercolors), only 66 at the time—and Kusama’s installation, Fireflies on the Water (2002), was easily the most interesting piece in the show.  Fireflies was a little room, mirrored on all sides with a still,  dark pool of shallow water filling the floor area (there was a narrow platform to walk on) and all hung with strings of tiny yellow and blue Christmas-like LED lights suspended in series from the ceiling on long, nearly invisible wires that made them look like blinking lightning bugs.  The mirrors and the water, reflecting the room ad infinitum, did make me feel lost in infinite space, a thematic impulse in Kusama’s art.  One by one, viewers went into the room—there was an attendant at the door to let people in and keep everyone in line waiting—and experience it (I dont know what other word to use here) for a few moments. 

My interest in Yayoi Kusama began in the early 1960s.  My parents bought a part-ownership in the Gres Gallery, a small modern-art gallery in Washington around 1957 and Kusama was exhibited there several times after she first set herself up in the United States.  One early exhibit Gres mounted was Six Japanese Painters in 1960, a display of Japanese artists working in contemporary Western styles, rather than traditional Asian forms—something that was unfamiliar to American collectors at that time.  I haven’t been able to verify this, but I recall that Kusama was among the painters in that group show, which toured the country, including such  venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Art.  She did have two solo shows at Gres: Yayoi Kusama in April 1960 and Yayoi Kusama: Watercolors in November 1961.  Beatrice Perry, the managing partner of Gres and later Kusama’s dealer, and her husband Hart became the artist’s friend, even sheltering her at the Perry home when the pressures got too great.

From one of the 1960 shows, my parents bought a Kusama canvas, one of her “Infinity Net” paintings, an untitled 51"-square, red-and-black oil painting that probably cost a couple of hundred dollars at the time.  An abstract pattern of tiny red, irregular blotches tessellated over a black background so that the canvas looks like a fine network of black lines surrounding little islands of red, the painting was sold by my mother in 1996 when Kusama’s work had a surge of popularity; I believe it went for low five figures.  (In 2008, one of Kusama’s Infinity Net paintings brought $5.1 million at auction, a record for a living female artist at the time.  In 2014, a 1960 painting sold for $7.1 million at Christie’s.)  Despite the de-acquisition, Mother maintained an interest in Kusama’s art, hence the trip up to the Whitney 13 years ago.  (I’m sure that if she were still around, Mom would be saving a visit to the Hirshhorn for my next trip down to D.C. so we could go to Infinity Mirrors together.)

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, in 1929, the youngest of four children.  Her family was well-to-do, owners of a plant-seed nursery.  The artist’s mother’s family were prominent merchants with numerous, diverse businesses; her grandfather was both an influential businessman and a local politician.  Because of the difference in status between the families, Kusama father, Kamon Okamura, took the name of his wife’s family and moved into the family home.  This situation, though not uncommon in Japan, weakened Kamon (now-) Kusama’s traditional position as the head of the household.  By all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage; Kusama’s parents fought every day when her father was home and Kamon Kusama had many affairs, including assignations with prostitutes.  Shigeru Kusama, Kusama’s mother, became angry and domineering, even sending her daughter to spy on her father and his lovers and report to his wife.  This experience began Kusama’s simultaneous obsession with and fear of sex that has lasted her whole life.

Kusama’s father eventually left the family to live with a geisha in Tokyo.  Increasingly embittered, Kusama’s mother became emotionally and physically abusive of her younger daughter.  The artist recounts that her mother told her every day that she regretted bearing her daughter and regularly beat and even kicked her.  “There were some very dark, unhappy moments in my childhood,” said the artist later, and not a day went by, she’s confessed, when she didn’t contemplate suicide.  At 10, Kusama started being plagued with recurring hallucinations of dots, nets, and flowers—images that would later dominate much of her art.  She sometimes saw the dots and other images spreading all around her, essentially enveloping her world.

The feeling of being engulfed in patterns gave rise to a phenomenon Kusama called “self-obliteration.”  It would become a guiding impulse for her art, especially the polka dots that have become her signature image.  She defines self-obliteration as “obliterating one’s individual self, [so] one returns to the infinite universe.”  (In 1967, the artist, then living in New York City, made a 24-minute film called Kusama’s Self-Obliteration which won prizes at the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium, the Second Maryland Film Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan.)  She explains her fixation on dots in terms of this impulse: “Painting bodies with the patterns of Kusama’s hallucinations obliterated their individual selves and returned them to the infinite universe.  This is magic.”  The artist states with absolute definitiveness: “Polka dots are a way to infinity.”

The notion “that we’re all just specks in the universe,” as Elizabeth Blair, Senior Producer on National Public Radio’s Arts Desk sees it, has been a goal for Kusama since her early childhood.  The mirrored rooms have something of the same point, as I myself experienced.  The rooms seem to go on forever and you can’t tell what’s tangible and what’s incorporeal.  Hirshhorn director Chiu asserted that they make “you feel as if you’re a speck in amongst something greater.”  “Our Earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos,” wrote Kusama almost half a century ago. 

(The artist also formed the Church of Self-Obliteration in a SoHo loft in New York City.  Designating herself “High Priestess of Polka Dots,” she officiated at a wedding of two gay men in 1968.  The couple dressed in a single large bridal gown for two designed by Kusama.)

The hallucinations impelled the young Kusama to draw what she had seen.  “I don’t consider myself an artist,” she says; “I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.”  Kusama began seeing a psychiatrist who was the first to encourage her to pursue art.  She once told an interviewer, “I don’t want to cure my mental problems, rather I want to utilise them as a generating force for my art.”  The artist, though, has never depicted her mental illness in her work; she draws artistic inspiration from her experience of her condition.  Her mother, though, was so adamantly opposed to Kusama’s interest in art that she took away her daughter’s materials, one time warning, “If you continue to paint, don’t come home.”  Her mother wanted nothing more for her daughter than that she marry a man of her family’s choosing, almost certainly older, and become an obedient, subservient wife.  A career in art was out of the question—it was unladylike and led to poverty and social isolation.  Be a collector instead, Kusama’s family demanded. The artist, however, has called her father “a gentle-hearted person” who had encouraged her drawing, buying his daughter her first art supplies, but his absence, stemming from his wife’s constant bullying, left Kusama resentful.  When he was at home, however, Kusama felt she was caught between her constantly warring parents

At 13, when Japan became engaged in World War II, the young artist, like many other children in Japan, was drafted into the workforce, sent off to sew parachutes for the imperial military.  She recalls that time as one spent in a dark and frightening place.  After the war, still determined to paint despite her family’s pressure to become a good little Japanese wife dressed in kimonos and dresses her mother bought, Kusama left home in 1948, against her mother’s wishes, to study Nihonga painting at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts & Crafts, 200 miles from Matsumoto.  Nihonga (“Japanese-style painting”) is a formal art style that employs traditional Japanese materials and techniques, as opposed to Yōga (“Western-style painting”), which uses European materials and techniques.  Kusama the Nihonga tradition constraining and “the school too conservative and the instructors out of touch with the reality of the modern era” and seldom went to class, preferring to stay in her dormitory room and paint. 

The young art student became interested not just in Western art, but specifically in the European and American avant-garde which was just then gaining prominence on the U.S. art scene and critical attention abroad.  She picked up this influence from illustrations in magazines and books, so her painting was largely self-taught.  Working on paper in non-traditional media like watercolor, gouache, and oil, the rebellious art student began depicting the polka dots that would come to dominate her art.  In spite of her defiance, Kusama graduated from Kyoto Arts and Crafts in 1949 and in 1952, had her first solo exhibit in March at the the First Community Center in Matsumoto, followed in October by a second show.  In 1954, the emerging artist had her first solo show in Tokyo and the following year, she was selected to exhibit in the 18th Biennial at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in May, her first international show.  With this event, she conceived the dream to go to New York.  Even in this ambition, Kusama broke with convention: as Calvin Tomkins, chronicler of the New York art scene since the 1960s, asserted in the New Yorker 21 years ago, “For a hundred years, it had been the tradition for Japanese art students to go to Paris.”

At around this time, Kusama’s psychiatrist “encouraged me to get away from my mother,” she recounts.  “If you remain in that house,” she remembers his warning her, “your neurosis will only worsen.”  She began to think seriously about going abroad.  Having seen some of her work in a second-hand book, Kusama began a correspondence with American artist Georgia O’Keeffe in 1955, who gave her advice about advancing her nascent career.  The “lowly Japanese girl” also sent along some of her watercolors, sending some to Kenneth Callahan, a painter based in Seattle, as well.  This bold action landed Kusama a solo exhibit at Seattle’s Zoë Dusanne Gallery in 1957, and, despite not knowing a soul in the country, the Japanese artist made plans to come to the United States for the opening in December.  Upon her departure from Matsumoto, Kusama’s disapproving mother gave her daughter 1 million yen, worth then about $2,800 (the equivalent in 2017 of $24,000), and told her “never to set foot in her house again.”

Kusama stayed in Seattle for six months, coming to New York City in June 1958 to take classes at the Art Students League.  This is the period when she started working on her Infinity Net paintings.  Her first New York solo show, after following O’Keeffe’s advice and peddling her art for over a year to anyone who’d take a look, was in October 1959 at the Brata Gallery, a well-regarded artist’s cooperative on East 10th Street in the East Village (preceded in April by The International Watercolor Exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum’s Twentieth Biennial and followed in November by Recent Paintings by Yayoi Kusama at the Nova Gallery, Boston).  Unable to bring more than a small amount of currency legally out of Japan with her—she smuggled out bills sewn into the linings of her clothes—Kusama lived in poverty, and speaking no English, the artist was not naturally equipped to make acquaintances, even though she’d trained herself in the un-Japanese practice, especially for a single young woman, of putting herself in the spotlight and making waves. 

In one way, though, she was fortunate: she arrived in New York City in the era of Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella (who bought one of her paintings), and the recently-deceased Jackson Pollock, the very start of the avant-garde art movements that would dominate the scene in the coming decade: Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art—and her work fit right in.  (Action art and Happenings, which would shortly become signature forms of Kusama’s art, arose at this time, too, when Allan Kaprow staged 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in 1959 and others, including Claes Oldenburg, joined in the following year.)  The young artist soaked up everything she could about the world of American art around her.  She became friends with Oldenburg and Andy Warhol—whose styles she presaged and whom some critics say she influenced—and Donald Judd, an artist who also worked as a critic for publications like Art World, in which he wrote a laudatory review of the Brata show, and lived at one point in the same building as Oldenburg, painter Larry Rivers, and sculptor John Chamberlain.  As the ’60s dawned and blossomed in the art scene, Yayoi Kusama emerged with it like Athena from the head of Zeus—fully formed and ready to astonish and impress.

As the new decade began, after her first European group show, Monochrome Malerei (“Monochrome painting”) at the Städtisches Museum in Leverkusen, West Germany, in March 1960, Kusama had the first of two shows, Yayoi Kusama, at Washington, D.C.’s Gres Gallery in April.  This was the show that featured the artist’s Infinity Net canvases (one of which, as I said earlier, my parents purchased).  I’m a little loath to quote the review of the Gres show at length, but Leslie Judd Ahlander describes very articulately what I recall, even as a 13-year-old boy who was art star-struck from the experience of hanging around the gallery and meeting real artists.  So, at some little risk of overstating my case, here’s what the Washington Post art critic wrote about Kusama’s introduction to the Washington art world:

The work of Yayoi Kusama at the Gres Gallery is a far cry from the traditional modes of expression.  A self-taught artist who has evolved entirely alone, the artist has moved from pastels which are delicate interpretations of nature to her present group of large abstractions, based entirely on the repetition of a simple, circular brush-stroke.

The overall tonality of each canvas is a single color, red, orange or white, but the color had been given great interest and variety by the manipulating of the underpinning, the contrast of a flat or raised technique (often ending in a heavy impasto) and a rhythmic pattern that goes through each canvas, giving a feeling of movement.  Where at first glance the work may seem static and limited, it slowly reveals its riches as you study it further.

Little remains of the traditional Japanese approach except the scrupulous attention to detail and the discipline and controlled technique.  Only such an artist as Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock in our  country has gone so far in making each single and minute thread of paint count in overall composition, which must rely for its interest on infinite variety within a single unity.

It is difficult painting since it takes a great willingness on the part of the observer to stay with it, to relax and contemplate at length until the message comes through.  Its exquisite and refined delicacy is not for the hurried.

The canvases were huge (one was reported to be 14 feet long) and the “little islands” I described earlier eventually evolved into Kusama’s iconic dots.  Her art is marked by psychedelic colors (which arose after the Infinity Net work morphed into the dot canvases), repeated images and shapes, and patterns, and manifests autobiographical and psycho-sexual references.  Kusama, always a prolific artist (one 2009 estimate put the career-long number of her works at 50,000—coming to about 715 pieces a year, or 14 pieces a week), painted the Infinity Nets “from morning to night.”

The Kusama Infinity Net painting, which another short review described perfectly the way I remember it: “Up close her drawings resemble delicate lace or crochet work; from a distance the viewer can pick out a seemingly endless array of patterns and forms swirling across the canvas,” hung in my parents’ home for over 30 years, usually in a location where we would be looking at it while we were at leisure—talking, reading the paper, having a family drink—so it was part of our down-time at home.  On the one hand, that meant it faded into our daily world as part of the scenery, but on the other, it meant I could—and did—look at it unrushed and undisturbed, across from where I was sitting.  What the anonymous critic wrote above is the way I remember experiencing the painting, and it mesmerized me.  It was one of my favorite pieces in my parents’ collection; I even tried to make my own version of it—miserably unsuccessfully—once when I was a kid.  (I didn’t say anything about this when my mother decided to sell the painting, though she asked me for my opinion; I said it was her art and she should do what she wanted.  Some years later, when I told her that the Kusama had been one of my favorites, she got angry with me for not saying so back then.  I just reminded her what I’d said at the time: that I hadn’t wanted to interfere with her choices regarding her possessions.  Part of me is sorry that I hadn’t.)

Into the ’60s, Kusama took on several other forms, including her much-photographed “Sex Obsession” sculptures, starting with an armchair which she completely covered with fat little hand-sewn tubes of fabric stuffed with cotton that looked like oversized fingerling potatoes but which the artist designated “phalli.”  That was 1962; soon she’d similarly covered “tables, chairs, kitchen utensils, stepladders, a rowboat, a sofa,” and all manner of other objects with which she was frequently photographed.  (The rowboat, complete with oars, was entitled Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963.  Oldenburg had started his soft sculptures at the same time.)  It was at this time, too, that Kusama began a decade-long relationship with artist Joseph Cornell, 26 years older than she.  As you might expect with Kusama, it was a peculiar romance: though Kusama herself called Cornell her lover, there was no physical intimacy between them.  “I disliked sex and he was impotent so we suited each other very well.”  (Cornell’s mother, with whom he lived his entire life, was clearly a major cause of his sexual dysfunction, for, among other things, she forbad him to touch women and told him that “women are a disease,” according to Kusama.)  Nonetheless, Kusama characterized their relationship as the great romance of her life, and she remained with Cornell until his death of heart failure in 1972 at the age of 69.

While she was attracting a great deal of attention, even awe, her works were selling for as little as $150 or $200.  Her work was attracting more attention in Europe than in the States, and she had more shows abroad.  Her colleagues here, with many of whom she often exhibited in group shows, were being taken up by galleries to represent their work, Kusama couldn’t find a dealer who’d commit to her.  Some of this standoffishness may have been because she was a woman in what was still a man’s world (O’Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, and a few others, not withstanding), some of it may be that even for the ’60s, Kusama was a little daunting, and some of it may have been influenced by the precarious state of her health, which often left her incapacitated by illness, either psychiatric or physical.  But certainly part of the distance the art world put between itself and Yayoi Kusama was the residue of what art-and-culture writer Andrew Solomon called “aggressive wartime prejudice against Japan.”  In any case, as Alexandra Munroe, an art historian who was in large part responsible for the resurgence in the West of interest in Kusama’s art in the ’90s, concluded, the artist “was too beautiful, too crazy, and too powerful” for the art scene in the U.S. to handle. 

As if to prove Munroe’s point, by the mid-1960s, Kusama turned from canvas and paper as the media for her art to room-sized installations, starting in 1965 in New York with Phalli’s Field, a 15' x 15' mirrored room filled with hundreds of her fabric penis sculptures covered in white cloth with red polka dots.  Ultimately, this led to 2002’s Fireflies on the Water (displayed again at the Whitney in 2012 as part of Yayoi Kusama, a retrospective) and the six mirrored rooms (including Phalli’s Field) assembled for the Hirshhorn’s Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors (running through 14 May).  By 1967, Kusama had moved entirely away from making any kind of art object and devoted herself to Happenings.  These were mostly improvised guerrilla street performances in which a group of young performers, some wearing masks of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, stripped naked and a usually-clothed Kusama would paint their bodies with polka dots.  They were purportedly protest demonstration, against the Vietnam war, racism, segregation, and for free love and expression, gay rights, and women’s lib—all the issues of the “flower-power” ’60s.  Most of the Happenings were performed in the street or open space in front of such establishment structures as the Statue of Liberty, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and New York Stock Exchange in 1968, where her hippie acolytes handed out flyers declaring, “STOCK IS A FRAUD!” and, “OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS” in a foreshadowing of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations 43 years later.  There was even an un-authorized invasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden (announced to the press in advance, but unknown to the museum) with Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA in 1969 in which the participants cavorted in a fountain, striking poses that mimicked nearby sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Aristide Maillol.  (Kusama returned to MoMA with the authorized one-woman show Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1972 in 1998.)

Like her penis sculptures, Kusama’s Happenings were always recorded in photographs, for the artist was nothing if not a master self-promoter!  She came to see publicity as a form of art in itself, and by 1968, she was more prominent in the press than even Andy Warhol.  “Publicity is part of my art,” she wrote in Kusama Orgy, her sexual-freedom newspaper which reported on her activities and promoted her ideas and opinions.  She was usually surrounded by a gang of hippies, among them the gay young men she dubbed the ­Kusama Dancing Team, who behaved like disciples, and started a gay social club called the Kusama ’Omophile Kompany (kok).  She’s boasted that she was “reported on almost as much as Jackie O. and President Nixon” and in 1968, the artist wrote President Nixon a letter offering to have sex with him if he’d end the Vietnam war.  By the end of the decade, however, the artist had become over-exposed and was seen by many as an attention-seeker who’d exceeded her Warholian 15 minutes of fame.

For someone with not a single tie to the United States or New York, except perhaps in her imagination, Yayoi Kusama not only found herself a viable niche in the art scene here, but reveled in it.  (There’s no doubt, of course, that she could never have lived the kind of life she was living in New York if she’d remained in Japan, even in Tokyo much less Matsumoto.  Back home, she was considered a “naughty girl” even off of the mildly rebellious behavior she exhibited in the ’40s and ’50s.)    Broke and depressed, however, Kusama’s health, both physical and mental, had deteriorated so badly by 1973 that she had to return to Japan.  (Furthermore, Kamon Kusama, the artist’s father, was ill and would die in 1974 after a long illness.  This came just two years after Kusama also lost Joseph Cornell.)  Her doctor in New York had missed a serious thyroid condition and fibroids in her uterus and she underwent surgery in Tokyo to correct the medical problems. 

Back home, Kusama’s avant-garde work attracted little attention from the galleries and art publications.  She mounted a couple of Happenings in Tokyo, but they were met with meager response and the press declared her a “national disgrace.”  What little coverage they got wasn’t from art journals, but from men’s magazines.  Eventually, Kusama essentially gave up all her art work and turned to writing a series of strange and surrealistic novels about New York’s downtown sex scene.  (She’d been writing poetry since she was 18.)  Between 1977 and 1990, she published 10 novels.  In 1983, Kusama was awarded the Yasei Jidai literary magazine prize for her novel Kuristofa danshokukutsu (“Christopher homosexual brothel”). 

In 1975, she voluntarily committed herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in Tokyo; in 1977, she moved into the private clinic permanently and has lived there ever since, writing and painting in her room.  The artist is free to come and go on her own volition and she has a studio in a building in walking distance from the clinic where she works for eight hours daily, returning to the hospital at night.  (She also travels to exhibits abroad, but her hospital room is her base of operations.)  In all the time she’s been in the hospital, the artist’s mother visited her only once; in 1984, Shigeru Kusama died.

Kusama eventually returned to painting and has amassed a large number of canvases which she shows all over the world even as she continues to create her mirrored rooms.  In the ’90s, she experienced a resurgence of interest in her work both in the West and in Japan and even in her ninth decade of life, she keeps up a crowded schedule of exhibits and the attendant interviews, appearances, and vernissages.  That’s what generated my mother’s decision to sell her Kusama Infinity Net, and it also generated coverage not only in the art press (Andrew Solomon’s “Dot Dot Dot: The Lifework of Yayoi Kusama” in ArtForum, February 1997, for example), but in such general-interest journals as the New Yorker (such as the four-page spread by Calvin Tomkins, “On the Edge,” 7 October 1996).  In September 1989, following 1987’s Yayoi Kusama at the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Fukuoka, the first retrospective exhibit of her work in Japan, Alexandra Munroe curated the first retrospective of Kusama’s art in the United States, the Center for International Contemporary Arts’ Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective in New York, essentially launching the renewed interest in the artist, known in Japan as the “Kusama boom.”  Between that year and 1999, there were at least 59 solo Kusama exhibits around the world (plus many more group shows in which her work was included).  Of those, nine were abroad in either Europe (including the 45th Venice Biennale in June 1993) or Asia outside Japan, 15 were in galleries and museums in the U.S. (including Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958-1968 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and 35 in Japan, the country that had previously turned its back on Kusama’s art and made her feel unwelcome.  A remarkable reversal of fortune.

In 1993, Kusama was designated the first female artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, perhaps the most prestigious art show in the world, from 13 June to 10 October.  The Japanese pavilion at the 45th Biennale housed a retrospective of Kusama’s art reaching back to 1959, including examples of her work in all its variations (except, of course, her live art and Happenings). The highlight of the show was Kusama’s new creation, Mirror Room (Pumpkin) (1993), a mirrored room filled with small sculptures of pumpkins; she herself stayed in the room, dressed in a color-coordinated outfit modeled on a magician’s costume: a yellow witch’s hat and long yellow dress all covered with black polka dots.  Having been inspired to sculpt pumpkins because one of the plants her grandfather’s seed farm grew was that fruit and the color, shape, and appearance of them intrigued young Kusama when she used to visit the farm with her grandfather.  She went on to make scores of pumpkin sculptures, large and small—some of them mirrored themselves—and this object has joined the polka dots (which often appear on the pumpkins, too), Infinity Nets, and mirror rooms as iconic Kusama imagery.

At home, Kusama, who now seldom appears in public without her signature attire: a bright orange wig in a bobbed style, fiery red lipstick, and a vividly-colored one-piece floor-length dress of polka-dotted fabric (usually coordinated with the art on display or based on one of her paintings), went from national scandal to the most important living Japanese artist; in 2006 she received the Praemium Imperiale, one of Japan’s most prestigious arts prizes—the first woman to win the award.  In 2011, Kusama published her autobiography, Infinity Net (University of Chicago Press), which David Pilling, Asia editor of the Financial Times, characterizes as “better treated as artistic statement than faithful record.”  (In 2012, Heather Lenz, a documentary filmmaker, started work on Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots, a seven-minute version of which was edited for the Tate exhibit.  Still incomplete and retitled Yayoi Kusama: A Life in Polka Dots, the project explores the artist’s whole life and work.)

The artist has been designing clothes since the ’60s (some of which she called “orgy clothes” with holes cut in uhhhh . . . critical locations), but in 2012, she entered into an arrangement with the French luxury design firm Louis Vuitton and her iconic polka dots adorned the company’s high-end handbags, luggage, sunglasses, scarves, and coats.  The New York store on Madison Avenue in the East 60’s was decorated with a display of red dots and the company sponsors many of Kusama’s shows.  At her Tokyo studio, in addition to her paintings, “colorful and hieroglyphic, with repeating motifs—eyes, profiles, tendril-like fringes, things that appear to be cells or viruses,” she makes products from “fabric to clothing to mobile phones,” according to Tate Modern curator Frances Morris.  (Tate Modern held another well-received retrospective exhibit, Yayoi Kusama, from 9 February through 5 June 2012.)

Just like the young Kusama who came to the U.S. in the 1950s “in a quest to become the most famous possible version of herself,” as a New York magazine writer expressed it—and she made it for a while—the present-day Kusama still proclaims, “I want to become more famous, even more famous.”  The attention-getting naked Happenings, of which she staged some 200 in their day, and the penis sculptures may be behind her, but with a boost from businesses like Louis Vuitton and museums like the Hirshhorn, she may just do it again, too.  In a 2009 interview, she proclaimed: “As long as I have the energy, I will carry on. I’d like to live 200 or 300 years.  I want to leave my message to my successors and future generations.

13 May 2017

'The Little Foxes'

There are some plays that, when I read they’re on the boards somewhere in New York City, I seriously try to get to a performance.  Waiting for Godot’s like that; Jitney was; Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night are, too.  Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is definitely one of those must-see plays for me—so when I read that Manhattan Theatre Club was producing it on Broadway with two sterling actors, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, alternating in the two lead female roles of Regina Giddens and Birdie Hubbard, I knew I had to try to see it.  Hellman (1905-84) is one of the great  playwrights of the 20th century, one of the United States’ most accomplished women dramatists, and Little Foxes is generally considered her masterwork.

I’d seen a production of Little Foxes on Broadway before—with a rather illustrious cast.  It was back in July 1981 and it featured a very famous actress in her stage début: Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) played Regina Giddens.  The production was an experiment of sorts—not so much to see if movie-star Taylor could do a stage part, but to see if audiences would buy a production starring a movie actress (among a cast studded with other film and TV names, though ones with previous stage credits).  The producer, Zev Bufman, and Taylor were contemplating launching a repertory program of great plays on Broadway starring actors from the world of film, to be called the Elizabeth Theatre Group.  The Little Foxes played 126 regular performances and eight previews, completing its limited run (with an extension). 

(The rep program, however, flamed out.  Bufman and Taylor had plans for productions of Noël Coward’s Private Lives (starring Taylor and Richard Burton), Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green (with Cecily Tyson), Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (with Taylor), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, and even more challenging fare, including Shakespeare plays (with Taylor—and why not, if Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney could do it, albeit on film).  In 1983, Bufman presented the Coward and the Emlyn Williams, but the project went no further.  Dealing with movie and TV stars—not Taylor, by the way—turned out just to be too . . . ummm, “difficult.”)

The Little Foxes premièred on 15 February 1939 at the National Theatre (now the Niedlerlander), directed by Herman Shumlin, with Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Giddens, Frank Conroy as Horace Giddens, Charles Dingle as Benjamin Hubbard, Carl Benton Reid as Oscar Hubbard, Dan Duryea as Leo Hubbard, and Patricia Collinge as Birdie Hubbard.  The play ran for 410 performances and in 1941 was made into a film by Samuel Goldwyn Productions under William Wyler’s direction.  The cast was largely the 1939 Broadway company, with Bette Davis taking the role originated by Bankhead.  Productions followed across the country and abroad, but there were major revivals in New York City as well.

In 1967-68, the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center presented Little Foxes under the direction of Mike Nichols, with Anne Bancroft (Regina), Richard A. Dysart (Horace), Margaret Leighton (Birdie), E. G. Marshall (Oscar), Austin Pendleton (Leo), Beah Richards (Addie), George C. Scott (Benjamin), and Maria Tucci (Alexandra).  Then came that Bufman production with Taylor at the Martin Beck Theatre in 1981, directed by Austin Pendleton (who’d played young Leo Hubbard in ’67-’68), with Tom Aldredge (Horace), Joe Ponazecki (Oscar), Dennis Christopher (Leo), Maureen Stapleton (Birdie), Anthony Zerbe (Benjamin), and Joe Seneca (Cal).  A new resident company at Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Center Theater, revived the play in 1997 under the direction of Jack O'Brien, with Stockard Channing (Regina), Kenneth Welsh (Horace), Frances Conroy (Birdie), Jennifer Dundas, Brian Kerwin (Oscar), and Brian Murray (Benjamin).  In 2010, the New York Theatre Workshop brought avant-garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove in to helm a new staging. 

The Little Foxes was presented on the Philip Morris Playhouse (CBS radio) 10 October 1941.  The radio adaptation starred Tallulah Bankhead.  In 1949, the play was adapted by Marc Blitzstein as an opera entitled Regina.  It premièred at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway on 31 October 1949.  George Schaefer produced and directed Robert Hartung’s television adaptation of Little Foxes on 16 December 1956 for the Hallmark Hall of Fame on NBC.  The cast included Greer Garson as Regina, Franchot Tone as Horace, Sidney Blackmer as Benjamin, E. G. Marshall as Oscar, and Eileen Heckart as Birdie.

The MTC revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway started previews on 29 March and opened on 19 April.  Diana, my usual theater companion, and I saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 3 May; the production is scheduled to close on 2 July (extended from an 18 June closing).  The production has garnered six Tony nominations, announced by the American Theatre Wing on 2 May for 2016-17: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance of an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play: Laura Linney (Regina), Best Performance of an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play: Richard Thomas (Horace), Best Performance of an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play: Cynthia Nixon (Birdie), Best Costume Design of a Play: Jane Greenwood, Best Direction of a Play: Daniel Sullivan.  (The 71st Annual Tony Awards ceremony will be held on 11 June.)  MTC’s Little Foxes has also received nominations for seven Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Play Revival; six Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Outstanding Revival of a Broadway Play; and three Drama League Awards, including Outstanding Revival of a Play. 

The idea to cast two actresses to switch roles was Linney’s, who’d already been signed to play Regina when she suggested to Sullivan “this crazy idea.  What if we asked another great actress, say Cynthia Nixon, and we rotated parts?”  Both Sullivan and Nixon—who, like Linney, had always wanted to play Regina—were excited by the notion.  The two actresses alternate every four performances of the eight in a week.  (The original idea was to switch off every two shows.  Sullivan extended the rehearsal period to give the cast time to get used to playing opposite two different Reginas and Birdies.)  In an article on the MTC production, theater writer Lonnie Firestone compared two actors swapping roles this way to an older, but now uncommon theater practice:

[It’s] a cousin of sorts to repertory theatre, in which an ensemble cast performs different plays on alternating nights.  Both offer an opportunity for actors to showcase their mastery of more than one part.  But sharing roles within one play adds another element—namely, it heightens the antipodal relationship between two focal characters. 

The theater invited journalists to see the show twice, once for each pairing, and many did—but most paying theatergoers will only see the play once (as Diana and I did), so we can only conjecture how much different the performance will be when the actresses switch roles.  Neither Linney nor Nixon thought there’d be an immense difference between the alternate portrayals.  “I think some things will be similar, just because the play is so well written,” said Linney back in mid-March.  Nixon responded, “They aren’t the roomiest characters.”  Of course, one of the beauties of live theater is that even when the same actor is playing the same role, every performance is different, and each actor’s performance affects every other actor’s performance.  It’s one of the most exciting aspects of doing theater as distinct from film and TV.  The tiniest changes have immediate repercussions, so switching actors has to have an effect—and many of the reviewers described the often subtle distinctions between Linney’s Regina and Birdie and Nixon’s portrayals of the same characters. 

None of the three artists had ever done this kind of performance before—and it is rare in high-profile productions, but it’s not unknown.  In a 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre in London’s West End’s (now the Noël Coward Theatre) John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternated as Romeo and Mercutio.  In a 1994 production of Sam Shepard’s True West at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternated the roles of the brothers Austin and Lee, and in 2000, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly repeated the casting stunt at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.  As recently as 2011, Danny Boyle directed an adaptation of Frankenstein by Nick Dear at London’s National Theatre in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated as Victor Frankenstein and his monster (sharing an Olivier Award for Best Actor that year).

The Little Foxes is an old-fashioned family melodrama—on steroids.  The title, reportedly suggested to Hellman by Dorothy Parker, comes from the Song of Solomon 2:15 in the King James version of the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”  The Hubbard siblings do a bang-up job of spoiling the vines and everything else.  As Addie (Caroline Stefanie Clay), the Giddens’s maid (and a former slave), says: “There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it. . . .   And other people who stand around and watch them eat it.” 

In 1900, brothers Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Benjamin Hubbard (Michael McKean) join forces with their sister, Regina Giddens (Laura Linney at the performance I saw) to raise money to establish a cotton mill in their small Alabama town (identified in Another Part of the Forest as Bowden, a fictional place) in partnership with Chicago industrialist William Marshall (David Alford).  The brother’s are counting on Regina, who as a woman had been left out of their father’s will and has no money of her own, to get her wealthy banker husband, Horace, to contribute a third of the capital.  Birdie Hubbard (Cynthia Nixon on that Friday evening), Oscar’s gentle and sensitive wife, considered Southern aristocracy by the parvenu Hubbards, doesn’t approve of the Hubbard greed and urges Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini in her Broadway debut), Regina’s 17-year-old daughter, to escape the avaricious plotting of the family—and to avoid the plan to marry her to her cousin, Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), Oscar and Birdie’s 20-year-old son.  Horace Giddens (Richard Thomas) is under treatment for a heart ailment in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. 

After Regina’s and the Hubbards’ letters to Horace fail to bring the necessary money, Regina sends Alexandra to bring her father home on the train.  Weakened by the trip, Horace, about 45, denies the money his wife wishes.  Leo, a feckless and ineffectual boy who works for his Uncle Horace, steals Union Pacific Railroad bonds worth $88,000 ($2.4 million today) belonging to Horace and gives them to his father and Benjamin; the brothers cut Regina out of her share of the scheme.  Horace soon discovers the theft and when he tells his wife the stolen bonds will be her inheritance from him, she becomes enraged.  The revelation of Regina’s true character causes Horace to suffer a heart attack; Regina withholds the medicine necessary to save his life, and watches as Horace dies.  Regina confronts Oscar, Benjamin, and Leo with the theft of the securities, demanding 75 percent of Hubbard Sons and Marshall, Cotton Mills, in return for not exposing their crime.  In the last scene, Alexandra bids her mother goodbye, unable to bear any longer the greed and selfishness of the family.  The MTC production runs two hours and 35 minutes, including two intermissions. 

(In 1946, Hellman wrote a prequel to Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, whose Broadway début the playwright herself directed.  The nouveau-riche Hubbard family is shown here in 1880 and patriarch Marcus Hubbard, 63, dominates his conniving son, Benjamin, 35, and his weaker son, Oscar, in his late 20’s, with the tyranny that’s made him a rich and powerful man in the small cotton town of Bowden, Alabama, and surrounding Rose County.  He’s reduced his sensitive and religious wife, Lavinia, around 60, to a neurasthenic.  Only his beautiful, 20-year-old daughter, Regina—played by Patricia Neal in her first Broadway outing, winning both a Tony and a Theatre World Award—whom he worships, can control Marcus, which she does for her own selfish purposes.  She wants to marry John Bagtry, a 36-year-old Confederate army veteran, who only felt useful during the war and longs to go to Brazil to join the forces of the military, conservatives, and landowners fighting to preserve slavery there. 

(The Bagtrys have become land-poor, and John’s cousin, Birdie, 20, has appealed to Benjamin for a loan which would salvage Lionnet, the family’s cotton plantation.  He arranges the loan to benefit his family’s business and himself, but when Regina learns the money would make it possible for John to go to Brazil, she thwarts the transaction.  Oscar brings Laurette, about 20, the local prostitute with whom he’s become enthralled, to the Hubbard house for one of Marcus’s musical evenings; Benjamin purposely gets her drunk and she creates a scene.  Marcus orders both sons to leave home, but when Benjamin learns from his mother that his father’s fortune was made from profiteering off his fellow Southerners and an act of deceit and treachery during the Civil War, he blackmails Marcus into giving him control of the family funds.  Now Benjamin becomes the new tyrant of the family, forcing Oscar to marry Birdie and Regina to give up John.  Regina turns her attentions to Benjamin, even though she hates him, to further her own desires.  Just as he’d destroyed others, Marcus is a broken and lonely man at the end of the play, the victim of his own greed.)

MTC’s promo for The Little Foxes says “the play has a surprisingly timely resonance with important issues facing our country today.”  There are, of course, issues of race and gender that sadly have a contemporary ring: the casual racism with which Cal (Charles Turner) and Addie, the black servants, are treated—though Hellman portrays them with both great dignity and independent spirit.  (In Another Part of the Forest, Hellman informs us that Oscar rides with a group of nightriders and that the Hubbards have clashed with the local Ku Klux Klan.)  But for Hellman, a communist and anti-capitalist who was haled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), it’s the depiction of American business that’s most pointed.  As Nixon puts it:

One of the things that the play says is that—and this is very in evidence nowadays—we think of people who amass huge fortunes as just being “good at business.”  But what that phrase sometimes conceals is that there’s a lot of cutthroat maneuvering in many different kinds of businesses for people who want to get ahead.  And there are many different kinds of bending of rules—cheating and violence and backstabbing and more.  A lot of the fortunes that were amassed in this country have that at their base.  This is something that the African-American community has been saying for a long time.  There is so much corporate malfeasance and these people almost never go to jail.  There are these two parallel worlds at the bottom and the top of criminal behavior; one group gets heavily prosecuted and one barely even gets perused.

I can guess whom the actress had in mind.  (If I’m right, I have the same thought.  How about you all?)  The same association arises when Linney addresses a question about whether she thinks the Hubbards are “evil”:

We see this behavior now a lot.  It’s not rare.  I think people will recognize a lot of people they know in the Hubbards.  I don’t think it’s that hidden anymore.  That behavior used to be a little hidden because it was seen as in bad taste and people had a reputation, and now people don’t care.  Now there’s strength in behaving badly.  So there’s a different perspective that America is in now.  It’s also sort of a warning—it’s a play of warning, I feel.

Near the end of the play, Benjamin tells Regina that “throughout the country there are hundreds of Hubbards,” and “they will own this country some day.”  Several reviewers reported a shudder rippling though the audience at those lines, and, indeed, that day may have come.

The Little Foxes Diana and I saw is absolutely excellent!  First of all, I sort of like all those old-fashioned plays, especially by writers like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Hellman, Clifford Odets, and William Inge—top-flight craftspeople.  Second, companies like MTC, Signature, Primary Stages, Second Stage, the Public, Lincoln Center Theater, and others, do such good work on their productions—especially (but not limited to) their casting—that it’s a joy to watch the work that’s been done—design, directing, acting, the whole nine yards!  Third, perhaps to repeat myself, the acting is terrific, especially (but again, not limited to) Nixon and Linney.  Even though I know the situation and circumstances are contrived, the actors make it look so natural that I’m convinced it is.  While Sunset Boulevard was not worth the ticket price, Little Foxes is, and then some.  What a great evening!

This is easily one of the strongest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, up there with the Jitney company last winter (see my report on 24 February) but not many others.  Still, the roles of Regina and Benjamin are the movers and shakers of the story, followed closely by Horace (who doesn’t appear until the middle of act two).  Linney’s Regina is focused like the proverbial laser beam on her goal—getting out of her house, the little southern town, the marriage she hates and resents, and getting to the wide world represented by Chicago.  To do that, she needs money of her own.  That she fails to achieve this aim doesn’t diminish Linney’s steely resolve to get there—it only makes her ending more devastating—and more deserved.  Because Linney’s usually a softer actress, more emotionally vulnerable, playing the resolute, unbending Regina makes the performance both more surprising and more edgy.

Conversely, Nixon, who usually plays stronger, less pliable characters, gives a more precarious performance as the brow-beaten and dismissed Birdie.  We get to glimpse what she might have been had she not married Oscar and come under the sway (in Another Part of the Forest) of his father, a nastier bully than even Benjamin.  Nixon’s Birdie pulls some of this back out again when she takes her niece aside and warns her to get out from under the Hubbard curse—and acknowledges that she doesn’t really like her own son.  That’s probably the last anyone will ever see of that entombed spirit, but Nixon’s portrayal will pull your heartstrings to the breaking point.  As Benjamin, Michael McKean gives a frighteningly believable portrait of a ruthless, soulless, conscience-less money-chaser.  Winning is all that matters, or indeed means anything; there’s nothing left to him but greed for its own sake.  It sounds one-dimensional, but in McKean’s hands, it has shades and variations—all in pursuit of one goal: to beat the other guy (or, in the case of his sister, gal—Benjamin is an equal-opportunity predator).  Richard Thomas almost makes Horace likeable—or maybe it’s just his contrast with Regina and her brothers.  It’s certainly partly a product of Thomas’s stage persona—Diana and I saw the same quality in the actor’s portrayal of von Berg, the Austrian aristocrat in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy (see my report on 16 December 2015)—but there’s still a bright streak of cruelty and meanness in Thomas’s banker.  If the Hubbards are the bulls of this menagerie, Horace is the snake.  Thomas may seem like a harmless garter—but he turns out to be a viper.

The other members of the ensemble, from Darren Goldstein’s Oscar and Michael Benz’s Broadway début as Leo to David Alford’s Yankee industrialist, William Marshall (another Broadway début), display nuances and personality gradations that individualize each of them and together they provide the matrix in which the Hubbard fungus grows.  Some are abettors and others inhibiters, but they all contribute to the agar.  What they grow together is reprehensible—but the process is miraculous to see.

Scott Pask’s faded elegance of the Giddens’s parlor perfectly fits the tone of the play and Sullivan’s production.  I could almost smell the must hanging in the air of the house, aided by Justin Townsend’s soft lighting that evokes the spring evening in the deep south.  Nothing, however, could render the material and chronological atmosphere of Hellman’s play better than the costumes devised by Jane Greenwood.  It’s no wonder that she was singled out from the design team of Little Foxes for Tony recognition: the clothes for the production are as telling—of character and status—as any of Hellman’s dialogue or the behavior of any of the actors.  The difference between Regina and Birdie?  Look at what they wear.  The kind of men Benjamin and Oscar are?  Their clothes may not make the men—but they damn sure reveal them.

Daniel Sullivan’s staging is so realistic that I might have thought the actors were improvising if I didn’t know better.  But more than that, he guided the cast to performances that perfectly reveal who these folks are, what they want, and how they see themselves.  As directed by Sullivan, The Little Foxes is just an extremely well-mounted production of a well-written modern classic that hits all the bases.  Acting students, directing students, and theater students all should be assigned to see it! 

All the award nominations for Little Foxes are deserved and the nominees are legitimate contenders for the awards.  This is not a case of needing to fill out a bracket or not having enough competition in a category (as a few reviewers claimed in the case of Glenn Close’s 1995 Sunset Boulevard Tony), or a sop to a vet or a “critics’ darling” (to invoke William Goldman’s The Season again as I did in my Sunset Boulevard report).  This production earned its nominations.  Day-um!  (I haven’t been this high on a performance since I can’t remember when.  It’s exhilarating.)  Kudos!!

On Show-Score, based on a survey of 56 published reviews, The Little Foxes received an average rating of 85.  The website included in its tally several out-of-town outlets, which I usually discount, so I’ve recalculated Show-Score’s numbers for 53 local or national reviews:  the adjusted average is 81; the notices are 98% positive, 2% mixed, and none negative.  The highest scores are three 95’s (including one for Variety), with 18 90’s (including the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Hollywood Reporter); the low score is 60, backed by three 70’s (New York, Talkin’ Broadway, and NJ.com/Newark Star-Ledger).  I’ll be surveying 26 notices for my review round-up.

The New York Times’ Alexis Soloski, calling MTC’s Little Foxes a “nimble, exhilarating revival,” wondered “Is the play too tidy, too well made, too clear-cut in its morality to fight for a place in the first rank of American theater?”  Soloski continued, however: “Maybe. But it comes pretty close.  And very well armed.”  The Times review-writer reported, “Mr. Sullivan’s confident production doesn’t deny melodrama, but it prefers psychological and social detail over Southern gothic fripperies.”  In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz dubbed the production a “crisp and taut revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 acidic and darkly humorous Southern potboiler.”  Dziemianowicz assured readers, “Under Daniel Sullivan’s sure-handed direction, the show satisfies no matter who’s playing Regina,” adding that the “production's good-looking.” 

The Little Foxes’ “lessons are none too subtle,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Edward Rothstein, describing the play as a “melodramatic classic.”  Noting that Linney and Nixon are “two accomplished actresses,” Rothstein reported, “Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, the rest of the cast is remarkable (and flexible).”  Characterizing the play as a “costume melodrama” in a “zesty Broadway revival,” Matt Windman asserted in am New York, “Although ‘The Little Foxes’ calls attention to a lot of serious issues (including economic inequality, corporate greed, spousal abuse, racial prejudice and alcoholism), at heart, it is an unapologetic soap opera with over-the-top characters and unbelievable machinations.”  Windman felt, “Director Daniel Sullivan approaches the play with a “let’s just roll with it and have a good time” attitude, leading to a simple but effective production full of old-fashioned theatricality.”  While the amNY reviewer found that Linney and Nixon were “fine” in both roles, he affirmed, “The fullest performance actually comes from Thomas.” 

In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” was: “Strong revival, delicious alternate casting.”  She opened her review with the declaration, “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.’”  Winer characterized the revival as “strongly cast” and said that Sullivan approached “what is generally dismissed these days as a melodramatic old potboiler” with “crackling seriousness.”  After seeing more plays about Hellman than productions of her work over the last 20 years, Winer “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.”  Calling Linney and Nixon “sublimely intelligent actors,” the Newsday review-writer added, “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.” 

For the Newark Star-Ledger, Christopher Kelly called The Little Foxes “a ripe melodrama” presented in an “effective, but straight-over-the-plate production.”  (One of the few reviewers to disparage the double-casting gimmick, which he observed “tends to be a lot more interesting to actors and theater insiders than to audience members,” Kelly stated, “One pretty good version of one pretty good play seems like more than enough.”)  Like Diana and me, the Star-Ledger writer saw Linney as Regina (he didn’t go back for the other pairing), and he found, “For the most part, Linney resists the high-camp dudgeon that Davis brought to the movie, opting for a more psychologically grounded Regina.”  Kelly’s caveat, however, was: “But while that’s a laudable choice, it also drains the proceedings of some potential electricity—a matter compounded by Sullivan’s steady, but restrained pacing.”  In the end, while he found the set and costumes “predictably handsome,” the production “never quite gets the pulse racing.”  In the Record of New Jersey’s suburban Bergen County, Joseph Cervelli labeled the play “venomously delicious” which is “being royally revived” by  MTC.  Praising Sullivan’s “expert” direction, Cavelli affirmed, “There is not one false move or miscalculations in this revival which is one of the highlights of the season.”

Tara Isabella Burton of the Village Voice dubbed the play “sumptuously sour” and the MTC revival “brilliant.”  Burton wrote that “the production invests us as much in the pain and suffering behind the mask-stiff moral carnivores as it does in the victimhood—or, more often, Hellman suggests, cowardly paralysis—of those they’re chomping on.”  According to the Voice reviewer, director “Sullivan’s genius is not to contort the play into a funnel for banal message-making, but to let a team of virtuosic actors loose onstage and let them battle as viciously for our sympathies as they fight one another.”  In summation, Burton asserted, “It would be easy to reduce The Little Foxes to a good play about terrible people.  Nobody gets off scot-free in Hellman’s script, or Sullivan’s staging,” she pointed out.  “But in the constant dynamic juggling of our sympathies, The Little Foxes is something so much better—and so much more affecting: It’s a fantastic play about flawed human beings.  Spoil the grapes the foxes may, but we want to watch them do it.”

In New York magazine, Jesse Green called Little Foxes a “breakneck melodrama” that’s “busily slapping down shibboleths and exposing hypocrisies” in a “handsome” but only “good-enough revival.  In Green’s words, “The play isn’t subtle; it’s just delicious.”  He felt that “the acting opportunities are juicy from top to bottom,” the man from New York found, “It’s largely in the calibration of the men’s roles that the production falters.”  He argued with the casting of the “aggressively likeable” Thomas and thought that “under Sullivan’s somewhat grandstanding direction,” McKean’s and Goldstein’s “pacing and affect suggest something too close to comedy.”  What the production “gets right,” Green felt, and is “powerfully effective, . . . is Hellman’s dissection of (and shocking prescience about) the way a systemic lack of power can turn into manipulative fury.”  But the final notion that the Hubbards of the world will take over the country is “a swift kick in the American grits, and worth the price of admission, whichever Regina is proving him right.”  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer described the play as possessing “a Greek tragedy’s implacability and the taut plotting of a film noir” and the MTC revival is “traditional in every respect but one”—the casting gimmick.  Each actress “brings very different shadings to Regina” and the anonymous writer recommends seeing both pairings.  “Hellman’s incisive storytelling, her razor-etched insights into women’s limited options in a patriarchal society, are largely good enough to withstand the scrutiny.”

David Cote of Time Out New York called Little Foxes a “potboiler” directed “with a crisp vigor that smooths over its melodramatic bumps.”  The man from TONY deemed, “The cast is uniformly strong, and outstanding work comes from the leading ladies.”  Though it “may not command as high a prospect in the pantheon of American drama as more poetic work by Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill, . . . it’s cunningly built and packs a punch.”  Cote noted that he hadn’t been able to see both the two actresses in both roles, but admitted, “This is such a richly satisfying revival, I’m going back for seconds.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio described the play as a “brilliant, blistering indictment of a rapacious southern family in post-Civil War America” on which Sullivan “has done brilliant work.”  Stasio continued: “His casting is flawless, his team of designers couldn’t be better chosen, and the technical detail that has gone into the production is amazing.” 

David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter was “A class act X 2” and the HR reviewer noted, “Daniel Sullivan's impeccable production for Manhattan Theatre Club never overstates that modern-day relevance; he simply lets the play's rock-solid construction and lucid themes speak for themselves via a first-rate cast and exemplary design team.”  Because the play wears its message on its sleeve, perceived Rooney, it doesn’t bear “stripped-down surgical re-examination” of the kind wielded by Ivo van Hove (who staged the recent NYTW revival) or Sam Gold, but “served straight, with the right actors, it's a crackling good yarn.”  In addition to his analysis to the various strengths and surprises of the double casting of Nixon and Linney, Rooney asserted, “This is a superbly cast production with incisive character work” from the supporting actors.  “This is a production as classy as it is smart,” declared Hollywood journalist, “shining a spotlight on a playwright who . . . is too seldom revived on Broadway.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Isabella Biedenharn declared, “It’s . . . a treat to watch these masters [Nixon and Linney] at play” in the MTC Little Foxes, “along with the rest of the vibrant cast.”  Scott Pask’s set “is a sight to behold” with “Justin Townsend’s disconcertingly naturalistic lighting.”

Michael Dale called Little Foxes a “backstabbing family drama” on Broadway World and Sullivan’s staging a “classically mounted revival, designed with stately beauty.”  With compliments for all the cast, Dale commented on the double casting, saying that “personal taste” will determine which pairing “audience members prefer.”  He concluded, “Fortunately, The Little Foxes is a fascinating play and Sullivan's superb production is easily worth a second visit.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart declared, “Under the scrupulous direction of Daniel Sullivan, Linney and Nixon prove that there is more than one way to skin a fox, with two highly contrasting interpretations that change the way we look at the play.”  Stewart, however, felt, “The Little Foxes is guilty of romanticizing the slaveholding gentry of yore in its condemnation of the greedy bourgeoisie that has taken its place.”  Still, he acknowledged, “at least this revival points out the absurdity of that contention.”  Stewart wondered in the end, “[A]re the Hubbards really worse than the self-styled lords and ladies of Dixie?  Why is inherited wealth somehow purer than wealth attained by scratching and clawing like little foxes around a vineyard in bloom?  Those questions remain with us, no matter who is playing what role in this must-see revival.”

On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell labeled the MTC revival of Little Foxes “engrossing” and even deemed the double casting of Nixon and Linney “ a smart, appealing gimmick.”  Linney and Nixon “shine . . . brightly” at the head of “a supporting cast full of stand-out performances” in this “fierce” production enhanced by the “elegant set and the sumptuous costumes.”  Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway asserted that “the guiding force behind Daniel Sullivan’s . . . production of The Little Foxes” is: “Certain distances may seem large, but can in fact be very small: between wealth and poverty, for example, or between importance and meaninglessness, or between being somebody and being nobody.”  Director Sullivan “pays careful attention to mores and appearances with his staging,” but “the physical production lacks that dedication to detail.”  Murray praised, especially, Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie—he was less pleased with the alternate combination—and affirmed, “The other actors are no less than satisfying.”  Though the TB reviewer found “Sullivan’s spin might be on the weighty side; . . . the action is definitely more slow burn than all-consuming crackle,” he concluded, “Either way, this is a fiery play that’s a definite hot spot for the season.”

Declaring Manhattan Theatre Club’s Little Foxes a “riveting revival of” Hellman’s “powerful psychological melodrama” on Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter described the play as “an example of old-fashioned but still magnetic playwriting: a tightly constructed play with crystal-clear exposition . . ., sharply defined characters, a theatrically colorful time and place . . ., and a powerful, anticapitalistic theme, as resonant today as during the Depression.”  Leiter cautioned, “One can sometimes hear the creaking of the dramatic wheels,” but found that the production is “a theatrical humdinger” nonetheless “when given the kind of solidly believable performances such as it mostly gets here under Daniel Sullivan’s shrewd direction.”  He found no fault with any of the cast, but singled out Thomas and McKean for special praise, concluding, “This is one skulk of foxes that still has its bite.”  Theater Pizzazz’s Michael Bracken dubbed the play a “paean to avarice thicker than blood” and labeled the production “a thrilling revival . . . under the expert direction of Daniel Sullivan.”  He called the alternating casting “Gimmicky,” adding “but it works.”  Bracken concluded that “Daniel Sullivan’s direction brings it all together, with meticulous attention paid to detail for a very satisfying whole.”

Elyse Sommer characterized Little Foxes as “an old-fashioned, smartly scripted and structured melodrama” and an “uber-dysfunctional family drama” on CurtainUp.  Sommer affirmed that “Daniel Sullivan has assembled a fine group of actors” and that “Scott Pask’s opulent set is . . . something of a character in its own right.”  On Stage Buddy, Emily Gawlak characterized Little Foxes as “a play that marries the stylized drama of southern gothic with the wit of a comedy-of-manners.”  She asserted that “it’s easy to sink into the play, which, though two and a half hours long, passes swiftly over sharp dialogue and growing intrigue” and that director Sullivan “commands a fluid ensemble performance, stretching great drama out of heated arguments and pregnant pauses alike.”  Gawlak complained, however, that “it feels like a stretch to call show timely.  On the contrary, it feels a bit antiquated.”  Our stage buddy summed up with: “In 2017, The Little Foxes feels a little bit like elderberry wine and tea cakes in the afternoon—a superfluous indulgence, but an intoxicating, transportive treat, nonetheless.” 

New York Theatre Guide’s Tulis McCall dubbed the MTC revival a “delicious production” in which “intrigue is presented like so many layers of a French pastry.”  Director Sullivan had staged the production “with style and precision” resulting in “a crisp evening of deceit and calculation.”  The cast is a company of “very fine” actors, and the “result is an ensemble that is having a devilishly good time.”   The NYTG reviewer reported, “Everyone is up to something, and you don’t want to take your eyes off any of them for a second,” concluding that there are “more than a few reasons to catch this show.”  On Broadway News, a new site I’m adding because the reviewer is a familiar name whose voice has been absent from the critical scene for some months, Christopher Isherwood (late of the New York Times) called the MTC production of Little Foxes a “succulent new Broadway revival” that “cannot erase its tints of both moralizing and melodrama.”  He added, though, that “it proves once again that Hellman’s 1939 drama is also redoubtably enduring entertainment, a theatrically effective indictment of human greed and its destructive power.”  With the double casting, Isherwood asserted, “both actors give rewarding performances in both roles,” and furthermore, “Sullivan’s production has been cast in such depth that even the formidable leading ladies, each worth watching in pretty much anything, are by no means the whole show.”  This “crackerjack production shines with professional polish and acting of sharp intelligence and theatrical acuity.”  The Broadway Newsman observed that Little Foxes “probably does not rank among the greatest of American plays.  But with its vivid portrait of a family trampling all over good manners and upright morals in order to maximize their, er, net worth, it might be seen as a play peculiarly suited to the current national moment.”  (I wonder whom he’s thinking about . . . .) 

On WNYC radio, Jennifer Vanasco pronounced Daniel Sullivan’s production of Little Foxes “thrilling” and said she was “struck . . . hardest [by] how rounded these characters are.”  Vanasco characterized the Little Foxes as “a compelling play about power and its abuses” and concluded, “This is one you shouldn’t miss.”  Robert Kahn and Dave Quinn of WNBC, the television network outlet in New York City, labeled the MTC revival as a “powerful and chilling interpretation” of Hellman’s “Southern family drama” in “Sullivan’s exciting staging.”  The reviewers felt, “Both [actresses] prove to be equally effective in either role—a sign of each actress’ talent and the production’s overall perfection.”  They reserved praise, too, for the rest of the ensemble.  (I usually include the cable news station NY1 in my survey, but David Cote is a stringer for the channel and his television review is essentially the same as his TONY notice, cited above.)

(I didn’t report all the comments of the reviewers concerning the double casting of Linney and Nixon.  Nearly all the writers agreed that it’s an interesting gambit, and most in my survey found that the better pairing is Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie—but the difference is small and all the reviewers acknowledged that if a theatergoer can’t see both variations, seeing either one would be more than satisfying.)