BOTTOM LINE: A seminal piece of theatre, The Little Foxes finds the balance between bewitching storytelling and artistic rendering.

In the scope of New York theatre, there are many opportunities to see productions designed to entertain. There are also countless chances to check out artistic interpretations of both classic stories as well as new works. It is rare, however, to experience a show that offers both ends of this spectrum — a juicy tale of warped relationships and delicious deceit, and also a beautifully rendered production that allows its actors to explore every depth their characters have to offer. For everyone lucky enough to see it, The Little Foxes just so happens to offer it all.

Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play is a melodrama about a greedy, feuding family. Ivo Van Hove’s 2010 production takes the disputes, sets them in an undefined but modern time and lets his characters lash out at one another. The result is a completely captivating intermission-less two hours.

Cristin Miloti, Christoper Evan Welch, and Elizabeth Marvel in The Little Foxes
(photo by Sara Krulwich, the New York Times).

For The Little Foxes, the New York Theatre Workshop stage is transformed into one grand room, with purple velvet covering the floor, walls and ceiling. Four chandeliers hang down, providing ambient light. At the center is a staircase, of which the audience can only see the bottom half. Immediately, a sense of confinement through excess is evoked, and the über-theatrical lighting and eerie sound design create a sensory overload — comfort through nervousness. This visual landscape informs of the unease to come.

Van Hove tells Hellman’s story digging to the crux of the characters. It is clear who is good, and more importantly, who is very bad. In this play, the human condition is not an optimistic one, with everyone out to maximize their profits. The story centers around the Hubbard family: two brothers, Oscar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Ben (Marton Csokas), and their sister Regina (Elizabeth Marvel). All three are astute business people, and at the time of the play, they are enacting a strategy to acquire a cotton mill to be built on their southern property. Oscar and Ben can contribute their shares, but they need the money from Horace (Christopher Evan Welch), Regina’s husband, for the deal to be completed. Unfortunately, Horace is quite sick and getting treatment in Baltimore. The struggle to get his money and the deceit behind the plan are the backbone of this story about manipulation and greed.

Both the acting and the directing are superb. Van Hove takes advantage of the grisly story, exposing the worst in his villains. The cast steps up to the challenge of revealing their heartless objectives of domination. In one minute they show their best faces, and in the next they disclose their most insensitive tactics to achieve financial success. Clad in power suits and attractive enough to charm their way through life, it’s easy to believe that each character is used to getting his or her way.

This production incorporates video footage, displayed from within a large gold frame situated above the staircase. The video (pre-taped of course), gives the audience a look into another room where the off-stage characters happen to be at any given moment. From Horace’s hospital bed to the Hubbards’ kitchen to Horace’s bedroom, this voyeuristic look into scenes Hellman didn’t intend to be viewed adds another dimension to the family’s exposed secrets.

Marvel’s performance as the sociopathic matriarch is creepily conniving. She plays evil so beautifully: a beautiful train wreck where you can’t look away. The rest of the cast is equally matched, particularly the other two women: Cristin Miloti as Marvel’s teenage daughter Alexandra and Tina Benko as her sister-in-law, Birdie. The emphasis on femininity in a man’s world (and the manipulation of that femininity) brings another dimension to the story.

“The rich don’t have to be subtle,” Regina explains, and the same can be said for this production, which is anything but tame. Van Hove wants these people to be seen for what they really are, and it’s impossible to sympathize with the inherently evil among them (although they’re not all bad news). With impeccably staged fight choreography that is as pretty as it is downright ugly, the grotesque mistreatment of humans is an ongoing theme. And these tormentors are ruthless.

For anyone seeking a truly satisfying theatrical experience, this might be the event of the season. Van Hove achieves a presentation miracle in his imaginative interpretation of this classic tale: it’s anything but expected without being too “out there” artistically. The most luscious, despicable behavior can be found within this haunted mansion.

The Little Foxes plays at New York Theatre Workshop through Sun 10/31. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, and Sun 2 and 7 PM. Tickets are $70, but $20 tickets for select Sunday-evening performances, $25 tickets for students, and $32 tickets for seniors are available at nytw.org. For more New York theatre reviews, visit theasy.com.