Ostensibly, Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" is a melodramatic portrait of a turn-of-the-century family in the Deep South. On the surface, they are small-town gentry, but they are essentially rapacious, ruthless people, the very incarnation of American capitalism.
What redeems the play from its almost hilariously orthodox Marxist mindset is its intense theatricality. Because the revival Jack O'Brien has staged for Lincoln Center Theater lacks that theatricality, its ideological underpinnings are embarrassingly obvious.
The main appeal the play still has is its central character, Regina Giddens. More than any of the others, she must present herself as the very essence of Southern graciousness, so that we are startled by the harshness, the calculating cupidity underneath.
Stockard Channing, who plays Regina in this production, brings surprisingly little to the role. Channing's skills are largely comic, and she's strongest playing contemporary women. Regina needs the kind of grandeur social lionesses used to command when the drawing room was, theoretically, the only place women could exercise power.
The disparity between the hostess' soft, flirtatious exterior and the carnivorous instincts it concealed is what gave these rooms a sense of danger and theater.
Channing conveys none of this. She doesn't know how to luxuriate in Jane Greenwood's sumptuous costumes. She never presents a coy facade that belies her darker nature. Nor can she express strength without sounding shrill. Too much of the time, she's just smirking.
The last Regina New York saw, lo!, 16 years ago, was Elizabeth Taylor, who had no trouble projecting allure. She only came to grief when she "acted." Channing seems curiously at sea throughout.
I wanted to like Frances Conroy's Birdie, Regina's alcoholic sister-in-law, more than I did, but the performance seemed almost too tragic, too grand for the circumstances.
Brian Murray is excellent as Regina's scalawag brother, and Kenneth Welsh has strong moments as her helpless husband. Most of the others register very little.
It is hard to imagine a more magnificent set than the one John Lee Beatty has created, using the full height of the Beaumont stage. It conveys an imperial way of life that must be at the heart of everything that happens. Maybe Lincoln Center Theater can put it in storage for another revival, this time with a credible Regina.
So what if she lies, cheats, extorts and kills? Few heroines of American theater are half as much fun as Regina Giddens, an abiding testament to what's so good about being bad in the world of fiction. Her amoral efficiency in cutting through blood ties and marital bonds to secure control of her family's business in the turn-of-the-century South sustains Lillian Hellman's ''Little Foxes'' as one of the most enjoyably chilling chapters in the history of melodrama.
Why, then, does the new Lincoln Center production of Hellman's 1939 classic seem hellbent on thwarting the work's most essential pleasure? As portrayed by Stockard Channing, an actress who would seem incapable of not winning over an audience, mean old, coldblooded Regina emerges as a jittery, fluttery neurotic who couldn't bluff her way through a hand of poker, much less triumph in the higher-stakes games being played in this morality tale of capitalist greed and sibling rivalry.
If ''The Little Foxes'' is about the corrupting powers of wealth, the director Jack O'Brien's interpretation of the play, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is more a cautionary essay on the foolish squandering of artistic riches. It is blessed with a cast that includes some of New York's finest actors, a luxurious, top-of-the line set and costumes by John Lee Beatty and Jane Greenwood, and a play about as close to foolproof as drama gets.
Moreover, the very fact that it comes out of Lincoln Center seemed to mark the production as one of the season's few sure things. After all, the center recently gave New York nigh-perfect revivals of two comparably well-upholstered, well-built works, ''The Heiress'' and ''A Delicate Balance.''
Well, there's a grim lesson to be learned here about great expectations. This ''Foxes'' is so wildly miscast and so haplessly misconceived that it is hard to figure out exactly what its creators had in mind.
One might start by remembering that Hellman once said she was amazed that people took her squabbling, mercenary foxes so seriously; that she had really intended the play to be a dark comedy. Perhaps that's what Mr. O'Brien had in mind in having his actors go for easy laughs as often as possible. And in reinventing the antagonists onstage as less a clan of determined, wicked schemers than a group of antic, childish bumblers, blending ''The Little Foxes'' with ''The Little Rascals.''
He has also appeared to steer Ms. Channing, as one of three siblings poised to establish a cotton business that will make them all rich as Croesus, into an oddly inward-looking, uneasy performance. Certainly, there are viable alternatives to the maleficent, icy creature whom Bette Davis (following Tallulah Bankhead's cue in the original stage production) portrayed in William Wyler's acclaimed film. Ms. Channing's, however, is not one of them.
From the outset, this Regina is a welter of exposed nerves. She paces, fidgets and grimaces, snapping her neck and rolling her eyes as her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard (Brian Murray and Brian Kerwin), gleefully seal the all-important business deal with their partner-to-be from the North (Richard E. Council).
She neither charms nor commands as she has to here. And as the play progresses, with the return of Regina's ailing, moralistic husband, Horace (Kenneth Welsh), she seems less to grow in assured, demonic power than simply, at moments, to unravel. This is as visibly dysfunctional a Regina as you're ever likely to get. There's evidence of a bad conscience gnawing away inside (most obviously and bizarrely when Regina is forced to what is effectively murder). And you're by no means convinced that the foxes evoked by the biblical passage quoted in the play will indeed conquer.
But Hellman's drama is not primarily about psychology, nor for that matter the sociology of a shattered South in transition. It's an expertly constructed, grippingly paced plot machine that pits good against evil and lets evil win.
Bringing confused Freudian shadings to Regina's loveless relationship with her husband and overplaying her memories of childhood unhappiness hardly serves the work's crackerjack machinery. Deep motivation isn't the issue here, any more than Shakespeare's hunchback king's rejection by his mother is the springboard of ''Richard III.''
Deprived of a centered Regina, the whole production seems lost in space, a feeling compounded by the intimidating scale of Mr. Beatty's representation of the Giddenses' living room. The staircase (which serves a crucial plot function) is longer and steeper than that of ''Sunset Boulevard.'' And the expansiveness of the lavish central room turns the production's blocking into an athletic event. This may be a comment on the excesses of the nouveaux riches. But is one really meant to think of the Beverly Hillbillies, wandering giddily through their palatial new mansion? Ms. Channing, Mr. Kerwin and Mr. Murray (a fine actor whose dangerous penchant for mugging is very evident here) all bring a sort of Southern cracker crudeness to their accents and gestures.
The casting is even more seriously imbalanced than the set. As Oscar's alcoholic, aristocratic wife, Birdie, the gentle soul trampled by Hubbardism, Frances Conroy registers as stronger and louder than any of Birdie's kin. (It's hard to pity her when you feel she could easily deck the weasly Oscar.) And Jennifer Dundas, as Regina's ''sugar water'' daughter, is a bustling, take-charge sort of girl who never seems in any real danger.
Mr. Welsh, Mr. Kerwin and Frederick Weller, as Oscar and Birdie's stupid son, give more measured, credible performances. But it's Ethel Ayler, as Addie, Regina's long-suffering, all-observing maid, who exudes the most confident, magnetic presence. Now she has the smarts and authority to run that new business. If the Hubbards don't have the wisdom to hire her, they'll be in bankruptcy within a year.
Jack O'Brien's staging of "The Little Foxes" is so refreshing, so cunning, that even Lillian Hellman could find no reason to exaggerate its worth. The Lincoln Center Theater production, with an unbeatable cast led by Stockard Channing, furthers the reputations of all involved, none more so than that of the playwright herself.
Often dismissed as old-fashioned and melodramatic, Hellman's words seem as fresh and vital as anything on Broadway today when spoken by Channing, Brian Murray, Frances Conroy and the others in this first-rate revival. As it did two seasons back with "The Heiress," Lincoln Center turns a warhorse into a thoroughbred.
And as with "The Heiress," there's no trickery here, no massive rethinking, just a solid, expertly paced and acted presentation, performed on John Lee Beatty's detail-perfect set of Southern gentility circa 1900.
Channing, of course, plays the deliciously amoral Regina Giddens, more than holding her own in a line of actresses that's included Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis (in the 1941 film), Anne Bancroft and, most recently, Elizabeth Taylor (in the 1981 Broadway revival). Channing's Regina is a more subtle monster than the scene-chewing standard set by Davis: Her capability for murder seems to surprise even herself. But capable she is.
Hellman wastes no time setting up the situation. Regina and her brothers, family head Benjamin Hubbard (Murray) and bullied middle child Oscar (Brian Kerwin), are nouveau riche cotton growers who have the chance to become mega-riche by investing in a Chicago businessman's plan to construct a new mill. Regina, knowing that her brothers are depending on her third of the investment, is holding out for more than a third of the profits.
Regina is dependent too --- on the money of her husband, Horace (Kenneth Welsh), a dying man who is summoned home from a five-month convalescence only because Regina doesn't want to lose the moneymaking opportunity. But there's a glitch: Oscar, in exchange for surrendering some of his shares to Regina, is demanding a marriage between his slimy son, Leo (Frederick Weller), and Regina's kindly daughter, Alexandra (Jennifer Dundas). Horace, whose impending death has brought about a newfound distaste for such nefarious goings-on, balks at the entire get-rich scheme.
And so the games begin, with each of these "little foxes" nibbling at the other's tender grapes (the title comes from the Song of Solomon) as each will let nothing stand in the way of financial gain. Hellman often said that most productions of her play missed the humor in all the back-stabbing; not so here, with Channing getting laughs from Regina's protestations of naivete. "I don't know about these things," she says innocently during one business discussion, circling the kill.
Crushed by years of such cruelty is Birdie (Conroy), Oscar's unloved, sweet-natured wife who's turned to drink in the absence of a real place in this clan. Her fate, the play makes clear, could be Alexandra's unless someone --- the girl's beloved nurse, Addie (Ethel Ayler), Horace or Alexandra herself --- stands up to the forces of greed and heartlessness.
Someone does, but Hellman was smart enough to know that the foxes can't be so easily beat. Regina gets what she wants, but not without cost.
O'Brien directs all this cutthroat maneuvering with cool elegance, drawing flawless performances from the foxes --- Channing, Murray, Kerwin and Weller --- and their victims --- Conroy, Dundas and Welsh. Ayler couldn't be better as the protective, strong-minded nurse/housekeeper, and all are attractively outfitted in Jane Greenwood's period costumes. In more ways than one, the play has never looked better.