Some say that to be a successful CEO in a modern corporation, it helps enormously to be a sociopath. Once you are free of the moral strictures that impede others — such as caring for the environment or worrying about worker rights and safety — then you're free to compete at the, um, highest level.
Well, just try to imagine a whole family of corporate sociopaths and what a clambake with that crowd would look like. Better yet, don't stress your imagination and just see The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, now at the Cleveland Play House. Sure, this particular nasty nest of vipers happens to be from the Deep South, and they're pursuing their ambitions in the year 1900, but we see the same type of people every day in our world. That's what makes this admittedly melodramatic and formulaic play so compelling.
Regina Giddens is a young woman with a lust for wealth, but in this turn-of-the-century world she is tethered to the fortunes of her sickly husband Horace. Her brothers Ben and Oscar have no such limitations, having been bequeathed their Hubbard family fortune. On top of that, Oscar married his wife Birdie so he could glom onto her family's plantation and cotton fields. Now, he and Ben are hot to build a cotton mill in their backyard and reap the profits that will accrue.
Trouble is, Ben and Oscar need $75,000 from their sister to complete the cotton mill project. Ever the sleazeball, Oscar suggests that maybe his son Leo, working as a bank teller, could marry Regina's daughter Alexandra (Megan King) and get the cash that way. That intimation of a marriage between first cousins is too much for even this soulless group.
Then Leo is conscripted to steal railroad bonds from Horace's safety deposit box at the bank. Since Horace rarely checks on the contents of that box, they believe they can seal the cotton mill deal and then replace the bonds before the wheelchair-bound Horace is any the wiser.
Clearly, no ties of blood or matrimony affect these vultures, and playwright Hellman dissects their characters with gleeful abandon. As Ben, Cameron Folmar is a walking id, strutting and preening as he tries to snuffle out any monetary advantage he can find. Early in the negotiations with the cotton mill magnate, Ben promises he can lower mill workers' wages from $8 per week to $3. It's an Ayn Rand wet dream that Congressman Paul Ryan would adore.
Jerry Richardson hits complementary notes as the weak and craven Oscar, whining and moaning when things don't go his way. As his son Leo, Nick Barbato looks and acts like a venal Barney Fife, leaping up to participate in the greed fest until his elders smack him down and put him in his place.
The most poignant role in the play, the long-suffering and alcoholic Birdie, is etched with exquisite precision by Heather Anderson Boll. Employing a squeaky little tweet of apologetic laughter, Boll conveys a lifetime of misery through her pasted-on smile and nervous, flighty gestures. Adding some human dimension to this carnival of financial carnality are Sherrie Tolliver and Kim Sullivan, who play the family's black servants with humor and dignity.
Of course, this play whirls around Regina, the role that Tallulah Bankhead played on stage and Bette Davis did in the film version. At the start here, Maggie Lacey is over-loud as Regina, shouting her lines and coming on like a stevedore. But happily, she settles down and finds a smooth, stealthy manner that suits the character like a steel-lined velvet glove.
Although she can't manipulate Horace (a nicely-modulated Donald Carrier) very successfully, nature and her evil instincts ultimately give her a big opportunity to one-up her brutal brothers. There isn't much subtlety in this exercise. When Oscar is physically failing, Regina deftly hides her feelings by telling him, "I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I'll be waiting for you to die." Okay, got it.
Director Laura Kepley draws all the juicy venom out of this melodrama without making it (very) cartoonish, and the costumes by Lex Liang, including Regina's drool-worthy gowns, set the perfect lush tone. On Liang's clean set dominated by a curving central staircase, Hellman's vile family, reputedly based on her own real family, comes vividly to life.
The only thing in the play that doesn't ring true in this day and age is the ending. Most corporate sociopaths today don't end up all alone, they just adjourn to their gated communities with their equally voracious pals and plot their next abomination.
The Little Foxes
Through Oct. 5 at Cleveland Play House,
1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.