THE LITTLE FOXES and LA BETE, Court Theatre. The two very different plays in Court’s rotating repertory this year showcase the ensemble’s versatility. The Little Foxes is a brilliantly constructed, relentlessly realistic expose of a greedy southern clan, while the farcical, quirky La Bete is exuberantly stylized. Unfortunately, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its shows: The Little Foxes crackles with conviction, but miscasting mars La Bete.
Set in 1900, Lillian Hellman’s 1939 potboiler boasts a juicy plot. Grasping climbers set on outfoxing one another, the Hubbards squabble over the controlling interest in an exploitative cotton gin. Tackling Regina–a role immortalized by Bette Davis–Hollis Resnik stirs the plot like a witch’s brew; her brittle bearing hints at the loneliness that fuels Regina’s rapacity. John Reeger is sinisterly suave as the equally evil Ben, and Craig Spidle splenetically insecure as the weakest of the bad seed. Barbara E. Robertson’s abused and alcoholic Birdie–a good person and thus a constant victim–is pathos personified. But as Thomas Carroll and Laura Lamson prove, playing Regina’s disillusioned husband and appalled daughter, virtue isn’t necessarily spineless. John Culbert’s set, which includes a sprawling scarlet staircase, inspires some stunningly taut blocking from director Charles Newell.
Impressively introduced here by Pegasus Players in 1995, David Hirson’s 1991 La Bete imagines Moliere at a low point in his early career. Because his serious dramas lack the common touch of comedy, Elomire (a Moliere anagram) loses control of his troupe to a street buffoon: Valere is a solipsistic gasbag and toxic mediocrity, but he can tickle the public’s fancy and amuse Moliere’s fickle patron. At the end, goaded by Valere’s easy victory, Moliere is writing the accessible satire of The Misanthrope and Tartuffe.
La Bete is much less of an ensemble show than The Little Foxes: Hirson’s witty verse drama is a virtual vehicle for the actor playing Valere. Robertson brings her usual flair to what is here a trouser role but, fatally, drops the energy in Valere’s 25-minute opening speech. Worse, her perky cuteness prevents her from seeming a worthy threat to Moliere–or a worthy object of the audience’s scorn. But Reeger as Moliere has the forlorn magnificence of a tragic hero who’s wandered into an empty farce.