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There was nothing remotely tiny about Tiny Alice when it opened on Broadway in December 1964. Edward Albee, halo still intact after being anointed a year or two earlier as the savior of the American stage for writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had managed to suggest through cagey silences and indirect interview responses that his new opus would do for religion what Woolf? had done for marriage. The playwright had also declared the play’s language too rarefied to tumble from the mouths of American actors, so his producers had hired a classically trained cast headed by John Gielgud, the most eloquent Brit available. By opening night, anticipation was nothing short of stratospheric.
Then the curtain went up.
After it came down, there was nothing tiny about the controversy surrounding Tiny Alice, either. Few plays have prompted so much confusion and critical head-scratching. Some first-nighters found the author’s arguments about the nature of faith brilliant; others, incomprehensible. Many talked of the play’s homosexual themes, only to have Albee deny that there were any. And nearly everyone agreed that the acting was superb until Gielgud famously announced he hadn’t understood a word of what he was saying.
The production closed quickly, but not before being embraced as a masterpiece by a coterie of Albee fans who’ve carried the torch ever since, making those of us who didn’t get to New York in time think we had missed something important. And the playwright’s contemptuous disavowal of a better-received American Conservatory Theater production a few years later made producers shy away from the show thereafter. It’s almost never professionally staged anymore. So I suspect I wasn’t alone in viewing the Washington Shakespeare Company’s season brochure, with its midwinter slot given over to Tiny Alice, as a—pardon the expression—godsend. At last, a chance to see what the fuss was about. I went to the final preview this weekend prepared to absorb the play, and to try to obey the author’s instructions that I let it wash over me “without trying to understand” it. For the first act and much of the second, that was no problem. The third act I’m afraid I found almost entirely mystifying, but frankly, after waiting almost four decades to see Tiny Alice, I’m damned if I’m giving up on it.
In summarizing the plot, I’m going to have to make it sound clearer than it feels, but only up to a point. The evening begins with a snarling encounter between a sinister Lawyer (Jonathan Watkins) and an arrogant Cardinal (Steve Wilhite), who evidently loathed each other as schoolkids and never stopped. The lawyer has been instructed by his client, Miss Alice (Jenifer Deal), to offer an enormous grant to the church—$100 million a year for 20 years—with just one string attached: the go-between must be the Cardinal’s simple, pious secretary, Brother Julian (Christopher Henley).
When Brother Julian arrives at Miss Alice’s palatial estate , he encounters a cynical Butler (Richard Mancini) who shows him a model of the estate, inside which there’s a model of the model, and so forth (layers upon layers of symbolism?). It soon becomes clear to us, if not to Brother Julian, that the Lawyer, the Butler, and Miss Alice have essentially bought him. What isn’t immediately evident is exactly what they’ve bought—his body, his soul, his faith…or perhaps all three.
Through humiliation, seduction, and a miracle of sorts (an apparently spontaneous fire in the model gets replicated in the estate)—not to mention much talk of sacrifice for, and acceptance of, that which one cannot know—Julian is persuaded to leave his position as a lay brother (Albee clearly means every conceivable permutation of “lay”). He then marries Miss Alice, who by this time is beginning to seem a surrogate for some other Alice, who may or may not exist. Having married her, Julian is immediately abandoned—and martyred for his trouble.
There’s much more, but Albee’s central proposition, as I see it, is that the Alice who may or may not exist is a sort of hypothetical Almighty, designed by the author to illustrate how man (i.e., Brother Julian) can be conditioned to accept any deity if a vaguely plausible explanation of the inexplicable is dangled before him. The other characters are present to demonstrate the capricious, manipulative, mind-destroying devices by which religions ensnare the faithful.
Got that? Good, because I’m not at all sure I’ve gotten it right, though I’m sticking with my interpretation until someone suggests something better. And boy, have people tried. Reviewers have discovered allusions in the play to everything from Lewis Carroll’s Alice to Disney’s Snow White. Linguist and critic John Simon spent whole paragraphs wondering whether the name Alice stood for “all is” or for the Greek word from which it’s derived (alethea, which means “truth”). He also wondered whether the play might have taken its premise from Manichaeanism, at which point I could no longer follow his reasoning any better than Albee’s.
What I can state unequivocally is that the Washington Shakespeare Company’s designers have mounted the hell out of the play, with Kevin Adams and Ayun Fedorcha providing a majestic, ethereally lit, marble-columned setting that suggests a cathedral but is actually the vast sitting room of Alice’s estate, and Mark Anduss adding sound design that powers the evening’s big speeches until they seem like climaxes even on those occasions when they don’t add up to much. (I’d have liked a more realistic onstage model of the estate, but the WSC’s budget probably prohibited that.) Also fine are the snappy costumes Michele Reisch provides, including a scarlet-lined suit jacket that can turn a lawyer into a cardinal when the script requires.
In John Vreeke’s agile, clear-as-the-circumstances-will-allow staging, the performers also do their bit, though not always as unobjectionably as the designers. Watkins and Wilhite do enough alpha-dog snorting and snarling in the opening scene that there’s hardly anywhere for their bitchy one-upmanship to go once the Cardinal has forced the Lawyer to kneel and kiss his ring, which happens about three minutes into the play. Mancini’s Butler, however, is nicely oily and ambiguous, and Deal is alternately seductive and castrating as the title character. Henley’s Brother Julian starts out naive, shy, and a little goofy, and progresses toward a sad, innocent martyrdom with plausibly perplexed dignity.
All of which kept me fascinated until the evening’s last half-hour, when, as I said, I lost my grip both on what was supposed to be real and why Albee thought it mattered. That said, I’m glad I finally saw Tiny Alice. Approached as a theatrical puzzle, it’s certainly intriguing, even if the author keeps its solution too far out of reach for it to be entirely satisfying.
In Joshua Ford’s dramedy Miklat, currently receiving its world premiere at Theater J, Howard and Judy Kleinman are troubled by questions of faith of a more prosaic, but no less urgent, sort. Their son Marc (Eric Sutton) has semestered in Israel to get in touch with his Jewish heritage and has gotten a bit more in touch than his parents either expected or hoped.
They arrive in Jerusalem to find that their New York Giants-loving, not-particularly-religious son now calls himself Moishe, has joined an Ultraorthodox yeshiva, and is preparing for his arranged marriage (“Well, not really arranged, more like strongly suggested”) to a sweet, but formerly promiscuous and chemical-abusing, Canadian named Sarah (Rahaleh Nassri).
This is rather a lot to take in quickly, especially for a couple whose Jewishness is more cultural than religious, and Howard (Jack Kyrieleison) does so with considerably less grace than Judy (Caren Anton). Her approach is to ask questions and try to understand what her son is going through. Howard’s is to bluster, bully, and deny. Guess who builds bridges quicker.
Ford’s script is clever, both about maintaining audience interest in characters who are basically walking position papers and about integrating the tensions of the Gulf War—just erupting as the story begins—into what is basically a generation-gap comedy. Nick Olcott’s antic, quick-stepping staging makes good comic use of gas masks, air-raid sirens, and even exploding bombs; it also makes the most of the evening’s jokes, without slighting the more serious undercurrents that are the author’s chief concern.
Many of the play’s observations are sharp—Howard’s comment, for instance, that he didn’t want to outlive his children but now finds his son living in an earlier century—while others are simply nicely phrased (“He’s taken the high holy ground, and we have nothing left to stand on”). None of which changes the fact that the outcome is never seriously in doubt, and that if you find yourself, like me, siding with Marc’s annoyed and disappointed dad, the play amounts to a waiting game, with only the prospect of serious frustration at the end.
That said, the performances are all fine—and sometimes more than that. Sutton gets more nuances than I’d have guessed possible out of Marc’s many similar responses to the same basic situation: He must keep justifying his new life to parents who don’t want to accept it. The other principals are mostly earnest and matter-of-fact—which suits the play well. Michael Kramer does what he can with a role that’s essentially a plot device—a heavily accented, Orthodox-hating Israeli—and in what I found myself thinking of as the Jack Black part (Marc’s dim slob of a Torah-study partner, who gets stuffed in a sack, gets drunk, and rhapsodizes over chicken parmesan), Grady Weatherford is athletically amusing. CP