‘The Little Foxes’ review: Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney shine in unapologetic melodrama

Given a choice, what kind of turn-of-the-century Southern belle would you rather play: the delicate wife of noble birth who is cruelly mistreated by her husband and turns to drink for comfort, or the steely and self-centered sister-in-law who will resort to anything to get what she wants, even refusing to lift a finger as her husband suffers a painful death?

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, each a renowned actress of stage and screen, alternate playing bad girl Regina and good girl Birdie in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s zesty Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 costume melodrama “The Little Foxes,” which is best known for its 1941 film adaptation directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis.

Their fine male co-stars include Michael McKean (“Better Call Saul”), Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”) and Darren Goldstein (“The Affair”). Although “The Little Foxes” calls attention to a lot of serious issues (including economic inequality, corporate greed, spousal abuse, racial prejudice and alcoholism), at heart, it is an unapologetic soap opera with over-the-top characters and unbelievable machinations.

In the days before television, Broadway was home to countless potboilers and silly comedies, most of which are now forgotten, but “The Little Foxes” has stood the test of time thanks to its meticulous plotting and period flair. Director Daniel Sullivan approaches the play with a “let’s just roll with it and have a good time” attitude, leading to a simple but effective production full of old-fashioned theatricality.

You can learn the dates that Linney and Nixon will be playing each role in advance. Linney and Nixon are better suited to playing Regina and Birdie, respectively, but the show is fine either way, and checking out both casting arrangements makes you appreciate their versatility.

The fullest performance actually comes from Thomas as Regina’s sick and wheelchair-bound husband, who switches off between gentility and heated fervor as he attempts to outsmart his wife. Meanwhile, McKean and Goldstein play it up as Regina’s similarly aggressive and greedy brothers.