Richard Thomas and Laila Robins
With Edward Albee's new drama, The Play About the Baby, slated to begin previews at the Century Center next month, the Second Stage's revival of Albee's controversial Tiny Alice is as timely as it is interesting. Have audiences matured or times changed sufficiently to clarify this macabre mystery about a young man of the church who becomes the pawn in a Faustian bargain between his cardinal and a seductive wealthy woman and her lawyer? Before I answer that, some background.
When Tiny Alice opened on December 29, 1964 at the Billy Rose Theater audiences didn't know what to make of its puzzling symbolism. They were not alone. John Gielgud, who had the lead role of Brother Julian. Gielgud complained that he didn't know what it was about and that Albee would not tell him. In turn, Albee, even though he felt only British actors could handle his play's difficult language, criticized the very British Gielgud for being "petulant" and "too slothful or frightened to learn and perform the work."
This brings us back to the "new" Tiny Alice. It's still laden with visual and verbal metaphors. Though we've become far more shock proof to its theme and homerotic underpinnings, it is still not the simple and straightforward play the playwright claimed it was.
One of its lines, "It's so easy to postpone elections" has become inadvertently super-timely.
The critics, though they agreed that Albee was an outstanding talent, gave Tiny Alice a less than enthusiastic welcome. The renowned Brooks Atkinson called it "a preposterous allegory, signifying something portentous about the vulnerability of human beings."
Andy Warhol at the height of his Manhattan avant-garde gurudom did like it "because it is so empty." Another artist, sculptor Louise Nevelson, was so entranced by the central stage metaphor, a castle within a castle, that she created a series of dream houses.
Naturally Mr. Albee liked it too and, in fact, held a press conference during which he chastised the critics for reviews which indicated they were too stupid to understand it.
The play became a must see for those who wanted to check out what the brouhaha was all about, and in order to take part in dinner party discussions about the possible meaning of all its unfathomable metaphysical symbols. It also attracted many theological students but once it ended its 167 performance run had only occasional regional productions.
If you just loosen up and don't expect to understand it all, you'll be caught up in its Albeean Rocky Horror show atmosphere even if it remains a puzzle. What's more, you'll find that despite its murky events and bloody climax, Tiny Alice is often laugh aloud funny.
Not having seen the original, I can't tell you how this revival differs, except that it seems trimmed by about half an hour. Mark Lamos, who knows his way around opera, seems an ideal director to steer the cast through the grand guignol operatic events. The current Brother Julian, Richard Thomas, is fully in tune with his part, and is given splendid support by the rest of the cast. And so, confused you may be, but bored, not for a minute!
The play gets off to a terrific start with an encounter between a Machiavellian lawyer (Stephen Rowe) and a Cardinal (Tom Lacy) and former schoolmate who's as smooth as the fiery red silk of his robe. Their exchange shows off penchant for word play. The pun and poison filled verbal duel swiftly and quite clearly establish the men's antagonistic past -- and future. Both are identified only as Lawyer and Cardinal. By the time we move to the stately mansion where the world's richest woman, Miss Alice, lives, the "deal" for the church to receive an annual billion dollar bequest has been struck.
The second scene takes us to the English castle replica where the mystery unfolds (though with ever more murky clues), dominated by the "Tiny Alice" scale model. This represents some sort of deity which duplicates events in the mainmansion and vice-versa (a fire in the dream house turns into a fire in the real house). In the mansion's great hall we meet
Brother Julian, the Cardinal's secretary, and Miss Alice's butler (John Michael Higgins), who like the lawyer and cardinal is known only by his occupation. Julian is as gentle and naive as the lawyer and cardinal obviously are not. Butler is an ambiguous presence, cynically funny, and yet he seems to know more than his detached manner would indicate. Their meeting is less revealing in terms of who they are than it is in establishing the mood for macabre doings to come.
It is not until the final scene of this first 55-minute act that we meet the mysterious benefactress, Miss Alice (Laila Robins). Her stunning beauty makes a particularly dramatic impact coming as it does after a playful masquerade during which she pretends to be a shriveled old crone. This highly theatrical turnaround effectively establishes a sense of an inconsistent personality so that it's not completely surprising to see her toying with the innocent Julian one minute, and being far less confident in the presence of the lawyer -- in fact, a fear ridden victim with a probably unsavory sexual history with the lawyer (and the butler?).
How the celibate but passionate Julian becomes entrapped in the scheme of what looks like a religious cabal (think high faluting Rosemary's Baby!) doesn't play out with many logical clues. However, it holds our interest because of its theatricality. Even the melodramatic, gratuitously violent crucifixion finale's overly long and opaque monologue is palatable because Richard Thomas invests it with such passion that you can't help being engaged.
Thomas, whom fans of TV's "The Waltons" know as John Boy, is also excellent during his scenes as the earnest young naif sucked into the grandeur of the mansion and the allure of its mistress.
Laila Robins would be magnificent looking even without the three knockout outfits provided by Constance Hoffman and has a beautiful, crystal clear stage voice. She manages to be sultry and sexy, but also touchingly frightened and withdrawn. Tom Lacy's Cardinal is a delicate blend of religiosity, arrogance and compromising ambition. Stephen Rowe's lawyer exudes malevolence even though his persona is more ordinary than charismatically sinister. As the butler, John Michael Higgins adds a touch of sly, campy humor, yet without sacrificing the sense that he has a hand in the impending evil.
Designer John Arnone's sepulchral mansion and the giant doll house that dominates its great hall capture the nightmarish atmosphere. Donald Holder's lighting further deepens the shudder and laugh filled Albeegorical mystery.
Directed by Mark Lamos
Cast: Richard Thomas and Laila Robins;with John Michael Higgins, Tom Lacy and Stephen Rowe
Set Design: John Arnone on costumes,on lighting and on sound.
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Sound Design: David Budries
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including two 10-minute intermissions
Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St. (Northwest cor. 8th Av), 246-4422
Tickets $40-$50 with limited student rush tickets at $10 30 minutes prior to curtain
11/16/2000-12/31/2000; opened 12/05
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
based on 11/1 performance