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Gotta love those Hubbards. They’re nastier ‘n hell—unrepentant Southern-fried creeps who could teach the most scurrilous stock-option smoothies a thing or three about take-no-prisoners capitalism—and though you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with them in real life, give them a stage and they’re great company.
Ben (David Sabin) is the bully of the bunch, bellowing to get his way, infinitely more threatening when you sense that he’s managing to keep his voice calm only with enormous effort. He and his weaselly brother, Oscar (Jonathan Hadary), have come up with a scheme that will make them filthy rich while simultaneously filling the air of the town with industrial smoke and continuing the Hubbard tradition of ripping off local black workers.
Alas, to keep all the lucre in the family and avoid dealing with partners who might let things like scruples stand in their way, Ben and Oscar need the cooperation of their viperish sis, Regina (Elizabeth Ashley), who must persuade her ailing hubby, Horace (Keir Dullea), to put up her third of the cash. Regina, knowing she’s essential to the plan, expects to collect a substantial bonus for her participation, and quicker than you can say “Let the fur fly,” it does.
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the play that contains these comically monstrous but entirely plausible creatures, is melodrama with a social conscience—or rather, melodrama with a social bent and no conscience whatever. Theatrically speaking, it’s as craven and unnuanced as the family at its center. In the service of exposing naked greed, Hellman thinks nothing of having Regina sit idly by as her husband, clutching his chest in pain, staggers up a long, steep staircase in a doomed quest for heart medicine. Nor does the author shrink from stating the obvious obviously. Just listen to the elderberry-wine-inflected speech she gives Oscar’s alcoholic wife, Birdie (Nancy Robinette), to lay bare every skeleton in the family closet.
So it makes good sense for director Doug Hughes to approach the evening as an opportunity to let his game—and ideally cast—performers indulge in a little un-self-conscious scenery-chewing. Dullea and Ashley have at each other with such brio, you want to see them paired next time in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And with Sabin and Hadary snarling at one another front and center, Robinette flutters around the edges, practically stealing the show as she makes Birdie alternately uproarious and desperately sad. Matthew Schneck plays Oscar’s son as so slimy a youth that he can’t so much as nibble a biscuit without appearing to be a creep-in-training. And even the affirmative folks get showy moments—Nicole Lowrence’s sweetly doting daughter stands midstaircase at one point and simply screams her frustration; Joseph Lane and Jewell Robinson get several chances apiece to vent servantly resentment.
Though the evening flags a bit during the last few betrayals in a plot that’s overstuffed with Machiavellian machinations, it has by that time built up too much momentum to collapse entirely. Hellman wrote a generous, if unsubtle, script, and this is a generously unsubtle production, powered by Robert Wierzel with ferociously theatrical lighting atmospherics, scored by Louis Rosen with orchestral flourishes that reek of honeysuckle, and upholstered to the nines by scenarist Hugh Landwehr and costumer Jess Goldstein in intricately patterned fabrics.
And as the characters parade their prejudices and chicanery from living room to dining room and back again, you notice in passing that they inhabit a household filled with acres of Victorian curlicues but not one knickknack. You look in vain for a painting or plant. Ashley’s Regina swears in that seductively smoky rasp of hers that she will someday move to Chicago, but place doesn’t matter to these folks—they don’t have interests outside their grasping, scheming, and empire-building. They’re Hubbards. Good to have them back on the stage, where they belong.
“My role,” says Steve Alton, the timid, unprepossessing entomologist who accepts an award for his study of butterflies in the first scene of John Strand’s The Diaries, “is to observe and report.”
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But when Alton (Edward Gero) is shown the wartime diary he once kept as a Nazi officer, that job description acquires a somewhat different tenor. As Alton defends himself in the long flashback that takes up the rest of the play, it becomes clear that during the war, he observed his fellow German “vampires” as well as butterflies, and his reporting involved falsifying—along with more odious duties.
Strand pictures his protagonist as a troubled moralist who helps Jews get papers while documenting the actions of his countrymen in occupied France in 1942. Loyalty to his country, Alton suggests, doesn’t mean he defends its actions (“I defend its history….This is a nightmare; nightmares end”), but that notion becomes increasingly untenable, especially when he’s ordered to purge his diaries of anything that might indicate that he or his superior officer has any doubts about Nazi ideology. This expurgation has the curious effect of making him appear innocent in the eyes of criminals even as he’s damning himself in the eyes of history.
Act 2 finds Alton exiled to the Russian front—and the playwright shifting gears. Having begun the evening by seriously examining a moral dilemma, Strand and his leading man are now caught up in war’s absurdity, and to explore it, they adopt the rhythms of vaudeville. Alton acquires a dim assistant/bodyguard (Daniel Frith) who is essentially a comic sidekick, and in the frozen trenches, the two engage in what amounts to sketch patter—setup, punch line, setup, punch line—about everything from unemployment to radio repair.
PJ Paparelli’s staging doesn’t particularly try to tie the two approaches together except in terms of design. Ethan Sinnott’s set features stacks of enormous diary pages and a 10-foot-wide magnifying lens in the first act, and in the second, a stagewide cloth butterfly with spots that form a swastika. But oversized symbols can’t compensate for supporting characters who essentially function as ideological mouthpieces—Alton has a Nazi shrink (Sybil Lines) and a Jewish girlfriend (Julia Coffey)—and the evening ends up attractive and conceptually intriguing, but inert.
It’s hard to imagine a better way for the Round House company to show off its new Bethesda space than to mount Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in it. The show calls for a bare, unadorned stage—which means that these first few Round House audiences will, probably for the last time in a long, long while, get to glimpse the back wall, the wings, the flies, everything their attention is going to be distracted from in the future by scenery.
What they’ll see upon entering the auditorium is a grand, cavernous, curtainless space, all wide open with only the slightest of divisions between the seating area and the enormously broad thrust stage. The incline in the main auditorium is somewhat less than in the old Round House, and there’s more space between seats (lots of leg room), so although there are only about as many rows as before, the ones in the back feel considerably farther from the stage. A shallow balcony hugs the back wall, and between the additional seats on that second level and the increased width of the auditorium, Bethesda’s new Round House can accommodate 350 to 400 patrons—more than a hundred more than the troupe’s old house in Wheaton. That’s still about a hundred fewer than, say, Arena’s Kreeger stage, which feels considerably more intimate. Still, once there’s scenery to push the stage action forward, that may alter a bit.
It’s probably best to reserve judgment on the space’s playability, because it’s hard to gauge at present. When the 30-member cast—roughly 24 more players than I can recall seeing at Round House anytime recently—takes the stage at the outset of Our Town, it’s as visually impressive as if a whole village of New Englanders had walked on. But when Pat Carroll’s stage manager welcomes the audience to Grover’s Corners, N.H., her expressively guttural voice is flattened by acoustics that are about what you’d expect of any big, empty, hangarlike room. For a while on opening night, it seemed as if all the players were pushing too hard in an effort to be heard, but as the performance went on, they found softer, more natural tones of voice.
Jerry Whiddon’s staging is natural, too, playing gently with sound effects (when a milkman mimes deliveries, you can see stagehands clinking bottles in the wings) and showing off the auditorium’s flexibility (actors appear high up in the lighting grid and descend into stairways midaudience). Whiddon isn’t interpreting the play afresh—it doesn’t really allow that—but some lines land differently in a post-Sept. 11 world. When characters talk of nervousness about foreigners, or equate religion with culture, you realize how accurately Wilder captured our national myopia. No doubt those lines always resonated—the play premiered just as a fellow named Hitler was coming to power in Germany—but they feel freshly observant today.
As for the childhood sweethearts who telescope a lifetime into a couple of hours of stage time, Andrew William Smith is an amiably guileless George, Megan Anderson an unusually ferocious Emily. Carroll anchors the production like the pro she is, sometimes getting guffaws with little more than a sideways glance, and the two dozen townfolk are fine, too. The production surrounding them is competent if a tad unfocused—better when it’s going for charm than for tears. But if the play doesn’t land with much authority, it provides a decent springboard for what will no doubt follow—a seasonslong master class in how a troupe and its designers focus audience attention and turn a theater space into a home.CP