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Laila Robins and Richard Thomas
in Tiny Alice
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
When Tiny Alice premiered in December 1964, Elliott Norton, dean of Boston critics, proclaimed Edward Albee's drama "big and brutal as an Elizabethan tragedy, sinister and blasphemous as a black mass, more depraved than any drama yet produced on the American stage" and, "in its own evil, cynical way, a theatrical wonder." More than a quarter century later, Tiny Alice doesn't seem depraved, blasphemous, or even cynical. In the intervening years, popular culture has caught up with Albee's atheistic view; but this series of taut, compelling scenes for two and three actors at a time remains, in theatrical terms, a gallop through rough terrain on a spirited bronco.

On Broadway, back in '64, Tiny Alice was directed by the great Alan Schneider and starred John Gielgud and Irene Worth. In those days, when both theater and church were nearer the mainstream of American culture than now, the play caused quite a stir, and Albee's discourse about how humankind models God after its own corrupt image struck a nerve with audiences. Tiny Alice became a snob succès d'estime, discussed at urbane cocktail parties, from Presbyterian pulpits, and in the pages of egghead journals such as the recently founded New York Review of Books. Seldom revived over the past 35 years, the play is unlikely to spur much debate today among the general populace, though audiences may enjoy bickering about the complex, often opaque symbolism of its plot and setting.

The current revival of Tiny Alice at the estimable Second Stage Theatre is directed by Mark Lamos. It features Richard Thomas as Brother Julian, the role he played to considerable acclaim under Lamos' supervision at Hartford Stage in 1998. Laila Robins is the Alice whom Julian follows down a rabbit hole of muddled theological reasoning. Though a trifle uneven, the production is a fleet, exciting two-and-a-half hours of intriguing, if sometimes pretentious, dialogue.

Tiny Alice was Albee's second full-length play and remains the dramatist's only theatrical statement on faith and religion. It opens with a rip-roaring duologue in which a well-heeled lawyer, whom Albee calls simply "The Lawyer," taunts a Cardinal while also offering a multi-billion dollar donation to the Cardinal's church. The two men, intimates in their school days, are now less than friendly but need each other to accomplish their sinister goals. The confab between the two--far and away the liveliest and most provocative scene in the play--leads to the formation of a weird, worldly cabal consisting of the Lawyer, the Cardinal, a butler named Butler, and the benefactress, Miss Alice. When Brother Julian, a spiritual seeker who has weathered a crisis of faith but is somehow unable to take the vows of priesthood, agrees to help the mysterious Miss Alice implement her philanthropy, he blunders into the cabal's clutches. In due course, he is seduced into marrying Miss Alice and, ultimately, abandoned by all the other characters to a lonely, agonizing death. Those billions weren't a gift after all, but quid pro quo for the body and soul of the innocent man.

Much of the action of Tiny Alice passes in the great hall of a castle--"every stone marked and shipped" from England--that contains, as its most prominent feature, a scale model of the castle. Within the scale model, there's presumably a scale model within a scale model and so on, ad infinitum. Everything that happens in the castle (a fire, for instance, that partially destroys the castle's chapel) occurs also in the scale model, or vice versa. Albee doesn't address why this is so or how it happens; and the clues as to what it all signifies are few and far between. That's the principal problem of Tiny Alice: Its symbols, provocative as they may be, aren't clear or consistent. The play can't bear much scrutiny on either its symbolic or literal levels without dissolving into balderdash. But what entertaining, often witty, balderdash it is.

Theologians utilize imagery (or "models") from the temporal world to speak about what can't be articulated--a higher, wider, non-temporal realm. Albee inverts that scheme, making the flesh-and-blood Alice stand for a "tiny Alice" (seemingly some sort of deity) who is Julian's spiritual bride and who resides in the scale model of the castle. At the end of the play, Julian finds himself alone with the empty scale model--seemingly, Albee's symbol for a universe without divinity. Not content to leave it at that, Albee muddles things by adding a brutal event that results in Julian's death and a long, inscrutable monologue about union with the evanescent tiny Alice that echoes Christ's last words.

Through much of the play, Albee seems occupied with the question of God's existence and the efficacy of religious discourse. Suddenly, in the final moments, he offers a plot twist that veers off on the theme of random cruelty in the universe. The audience is unprepared for this ending and can't help being bewildered. By contrast, when Celia Coplestone dies in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (crucified next to a giant anthill), the playwright has laid the dramatic groundwork for this turn of events; the audience is not only prepared but, in dramatic terms, satisfied. Not so with Julian's death in Tiny Alice, which seems a hastily appended coda, lending an impression of discontinuity.

For all its intellectual loose ends and muddled symbolism, Tiny Alice packs a wallop. This is theater, after all, not systematic theology. Each scene involves characters--most of them thugs and monsters--who know what they want and are determined to achieve their evil ends. At Second Stage, Lamos has directed Tiny Alice in a grand, bombastic way, exploiting the overblown, operatic value of the characters' appetites. Scene designer John Arnone, assisted by Donald Holder's lighting design, has created a spooky, mysterious environment with monumental columns that tower over the actors and glide across the stage between scenes, making the changes of setting as portentous as the play itself.

Playing the naif enveloped in a web of worldly spiders, Richard Thomas is solid, calm, and convincing. Thomas has aged so gracefully that it's sometimes difficult to separate him from the specter of John-Boy Walton; but, as the benevolent Brother Julian, he gives a performance complex and deep enough to banish that specter. Though Thomas's reading of the role is a study in intelligent restraint, he is sufficiently forceful to balance the impressive malevolence of the four other actors, making Julian the serene center of a cast that, by and large, goes over the top. His most noteworthy achievement is the long death monologue (reportedly Gielgud's bête noir), which he imbues with enough poignance to distract the audience, at least momentarily, from the tacked-on quality of the final scene.

John Michael Higgns, Stephen Rowe,
Richard Thomas, and Laila Robins in Tiny Alice
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Tom Lacy and Stephen Rowe as Cardinal and Lawyer, respectively, square off in a camp contest of twin Lucifers. Ultimately, Lacy's Cardinal is more commanding than Rowe's Lawyer, which does a slight injustice to Albee's text. Both actors--talented, accomplished, and at the peak of their form--are fascinating to watch.

As Miss Alice, Robins is beautiful to hear and behold, but her performance lingers on a single note. She and Lamos apparently view the character as a concerted seducer, all tricks and wiles. (Irene Worth is reputed to have found much greater complexity in Miss Alice.) Robins' interpretation renders Alice's abandonment of Julian at the play's end blandly predictable, and robs the third act of any suspense or surprise. The evening would be more interesting and emotionally affecting if Robins and Lamos allowed Miss Alice, at some points, to mean what she says to Julian; this would have given the impression that her course of action isn't decided from the beginning.

The most effective performance, because it's the most varied, is John Michael Higgins' Butler, a servant who won't serve any master--and who, in fact, used to command Miss Alice as his mistress. Butler is essential to the play but, like a Shakespearean fool, stands somewhat apart from the action. He's a foil to Julian, who longs to serve both God and man. Higgins invests Butler with an oily, limp-wristed quality that aligns him with the Lawyer and Cardinal. At the same time, he gives the character a sympathetic aspect appropriate to Butler's function as Judas, who was both betrayer and disciple. Most important, Higgins provides extravagant comic relief, offsetting the high seriousness of Albee's play and the operatic tone of Lamos' direction.

If all aspects of Lamos' energetic staging were on a par with Higgins' contribution, this would be an ideal revival. Still and all, the production skitters along on the virtuosic energy of Albee's writing, with hardly a pause for the audience to contemplate (at least until afterwards) the flaws in performance or text. The idiosyncratic allure of Albee's characters and the cryptic yet compelling nature of his dialogue ensure that, whatever else Tiny Alice may be, it is, in Elliott Norton's phrase, "a theatrical wonder."

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