Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon have been doing this a while, but they still get excited about rehearsing. For one thing, it reminds them why they keep coming back to the theatre from their regular sojourns in other media.
“It’s so much fun being in that rehearsal room with Dan,” Linney says of director Daniel Sullivan, who’s helming them in Manhattan Theatre Club’s (MTC) new Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Nixon has another word for it: “It’s juicy,” she adds.
Professional bonhomie aside, there’s an additional reason for them to be especially excited by run-throughs this time out: They’re switching off in the female lead roles, in a casting stunt a bit like the Philip Seymour Hoffman/John C. Reilly True West back in 2000. At the first rehearsal, Linney read the part of the bold, unapologetic Regina Giddens, while Nixon read the part of Regina’s fragile, inhibited sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard. They’re planning to balance their rehearsal time equally between the two characters leading up to the start of performances on March 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. They will alternate roles every two shows.
Sullivan admits he’s “never done anything like this as a director before,” and has increased the rehearsal period to accommodate a sort of double production in which the entire cast must acclimate to playing, and playing opposite, two Reginas and two Birdies.
Swapping roles between a pair of actors like this is 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. Linney and Nixon realize that most audiences who come to The Little Foxes will attend only once, but just knowing that the performers have the capacity to switch roles creates an exciting layer for viewers, perhaps even awakening them to more of the distinctions between Regina and Birdie.
The Hoffman/Reilly True West isn’t the only antecedent for this approach: In a previous production at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1994, Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko alternated roles. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier switched off as Romeo and Mercutio in a 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet, and as recently as 2011, a Danny Boyle-directed Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London had Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating Victor Frankenstein and his monster. (The two shared an Olivier for Best Actor that year.)
“I thought it would be fun, and kind of an experiment on how do we do this and how does it affect the play,” Linney says of the idea, which she suggested. She had already signed on to play Regina when she “remembered somewhere in the back of my mind that [Nixon] always wanted to play Regina. And quite frankly, I always wanted to play Birdie.” So she called Sullivan and said, “‘I have this crazy idea. What if we asked another great actress, say Cynthia Nixon, and we rotated parts?’ There was a pause on the phone and he went, ‘Oh, Laura!’ And literally within five hours Cynthia had left me a message, like, ‘Oh my God, how exciting!’”
American Theatre met with Nixon and Linney recently to talk about Hellman’s classic and the way its depiction of American business and strong female characters hits home in 2017—resonances that MTC artistic director
Lynne Meadow says she didn’t have in mind when she included the show in the season, but which feel “eerily more timely than ever.”
How is the alternating roles going in rehearsal?
Linney: This is a new thing for everybody. I don’t think Dan has ever done this. I’ve certainly never done this before. So we’re sort of gonna figure it out as we go. Hopefully we’ll swap back and forth and both feel intimate with both parts.
Nixon: I think we did agree certainly to not give ourselves whiplash, to feel it as it goes. Because so much of figuring out a character is bonding with that character, like bonding with a child or bonding with a pet. You can’t keep snatching that individual out of your arms.
Linney: This goes for the rest of the cast as well. People think that it’s just the two of us, but the rest of our cast—I mean, it’s a living thing, so it’s gonna shift and change with each other, depending on who’s doing what part, and it’s gonna affect everybody else.
Nixon: It’s so weird, because so often whatever offstage relationship you have with another actor is in some way a response—either an echo of or in opposition to how you are onstage. So here you might develop a relationship with someone who’s supposed to be your husband, but half of the time he’s also your brother.
What was your impression of the play before this experience? Any previous Reginas have an impact on you?
Linney: I remember posters of it with Elizabeth Taylor, and I remember when Stockard [Channing] did it [at Lincoln Center Theater], but I’ve actually never seen it, so I think unfortunately, like many classic plays, people grow accustomed to them and take them for granted. But what makes it a great play is that every time it’s done, it will resonate within the culture of the time. And this play springs to life now in very unexpected ways.
MTC’s page for the show calls the play “surprisingly timely.” How so?
Nixon: It’s hard to know where to start. Lillian Hellman comes to it with a specific political agenda. She’s a communist; she’s a half-Southerner; she’s a critic of capitalism. 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.
Linney: There are racial issues throughout this play as well that are subtle but that are certainly there.
Nixon: And not subtle.
Linney: And misogyny.
Nixon: One thing that is really exciting to me, and I think to us, is that we get to do these completely opposite ends of the feminine spectrum. Even more than, “How did she read this line? How do I read this line?” You can have a sexy ballbuster and a sweet, ethical drunk. And it’s not that they are inherently different women. It’s that their circumstances have been very different.
Linney: They’re a product of their time and their environment.
Nixon: And of what was nurtured in them: a sense that success in life means being good at business at any cost, and that success for a woman is that she’s nice and genteel and polite. And while no one would deny that Regina is a villain or has many villainous aspects, the underpinnings of why she does what she does and the misogyny that she is constantly subject to—you understand why she’s a survivor. So what do you want to be: a nice person who goes under?
In reading reviews of the play throughout the decades, I found that so many critics—Frank Rich in the ’80s, Clive Barnes in the ’60s—talk about how diabolical the Hubbards are. Barnes actually wrote in his 1967 review, “Miss Hellman appears to thrive on evil.” Is this a play that thrives on evil?
Linney: I wish it appeared to be evil. Unfortunately it’s far too recognizable. 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.
Nixon: Yeah, and I think to say “evil” just dismisses it too easily. You can say Hitler’s evil, but Hitler did the things he did for a reason, and if you look at the family that Regina and her brothers come from—you look at how they felt shat upon by the Southern aristocracy, and Regina, why she fights a little harder and a little dirtier. You oppress people for long enough, they’re gonna rise up.
What are the most striking points of comparison and contrast between Birdie and Regina?
Nixon: Well, we just each had a fitting in both our Regina costumes and our Birdie costumes, and it was amazing. You put the things on and you just feel it. You feel Birdie’s nerves. And everything about Regina—she’s not afraid of making a statement.
Linney: There’s one character who looks very much ahead and one character who looks very much back. There’s one character who wants to go home and one character who wants to get away from home. There’s a character who’s described as handsome and a character who’s described as pretty. There’s a woman who needs love and there’s a woman who quite frankly doesn’t, or doesn’t to the same degree. They represent complete opposites.
Nixon: We were looking at the set model, and Dan said, “As beautiful as this house is, we’re gonna make it a little crumbly.” One of the things that Dan has said from the get-go is that these people need this money. These people are in financial trouble. It’s not just that they’re rich and they want to be super-rich. It’s, like, they are really in need of money. And I think that for Regina, the life that she should’ve had that she didn’t have, she’s still just barely young enough to get it if she lunges now. She’s trying to maintain, maintain, maintain. And then there’s a woman who’s just given up.
It’s interesting, when I was reading the play again, there are some lines that male characters say to Regina that make me think a male playwright could have written it. Like when Regina gets mad and Ben says, “You’d get farther with a smile.”
Linney: I get that too, and it pisses me off every time. Walking on a movie set, I get that all the time. “Hey, you in a good mood? Give us a smile!” I don’t go up to some guy and say, “Give me a smile.” That hasn’t changed.
Nixon: Lillian Hellman obviously knows what is said to women. And there’s this thing that Regina says to her daughter, Alexandra, “You’re not made of sugar water, after all.” Which is something that was said to Lillian Hellman by her great-uncle. It was a seminal moment in her life, where she did something she thought would make him angry, but he actually was like, “Ah, there’s something to ya.”
Linney: A little vinegar in there.
Is Daniel Sullivan open to seeing where your Birdies and Reginas go, even if they diverge somewhat?
Linney: I think he’ll do what’s best for the play. How we differ or how similar we are, we have no idea. I think some things will be similar, just because the play is so well written.
Nixon: They aren’t the roomiest characters. I think his only concern would be if we go off the road. Not like, “It’s too blue or it’s too yellow.”
Linney: Anything that’s good for the play, he’ll let us do, I think. I think that’s why he’s excited for us to try this. That’s why I’m excited. [Turns to Nixon] I can’t wait to see what you do.
Nixon: It’s also funny, the idea of doing it with the other person there. That’s funny to think about it. So if you’re doing Regina in a scene that Birdie’s not in, do I sit and watch?
Linney: Yes! Of course you do. It’s a great way to celebrate each other’s differences and similarities. And what can work for one actress might not work for the other.
You’ve been in one another’s orbit throughout your careers. Laura, what are Cynthia’s strengths as a performer, and Cynthia, what are Laura’s?
Nixon: Here we go!
Linney: I think Cynthia has a dynamic combination of mind and heart. You can follow what she’s thinking and you can feel what she’s feeling, and she leads you through a narrative like very few people. I’ve watched Cynthia onstage since she was young. It’s always wonderful to watch someone who’s been working consistently and mindfully and thoughtfully for a very long time. To watch someone grow through the decades, it’s wonderful.
Nixon: Laura has impeccable instincts and impeccable training, which is a fantastic combination. And she has all of those classical chops, but they don’t overlay her. So whether she’s in a contemporary piece or a classical piece, you don’t feel the musty gloom hanging over. She has her technique, but she uses it as a spring. The main thing about Laura is her appetite for the work. She’s always really excited about it, and it’s gonna be fun and delicious.
Linney: When things are aligned properly and you do your own work and you come prepared and you surrender, then you can really set sail. There’s this wonderful period of time when you stop working on the play and the play starts working on you.
When you come to the theatre for a performance, and you’re playing, let’s say, Birdie that night, what will be your method of getting into the role as opposed to when you play Regina?
Linney: There’s just sort of a mindset. Like when you’re reading two books at the same time. We’re sort of in repertory with ourselves. I suspect that it’s not gonna be a huge weight of change.
Nixon: Regina is like a marathon, and Birdie is like fine embroidery.
New York City-based journalist Lonnie Firestone is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
A version of this piece appears in American Theatre’s April ’17 issue with the headline “Star Turns.”