More Stagely Mansions


Respect for wealth is Tiny Alice's medium, though not its carefully indecipherable message: For $20 billion—a dramatically specific yet childishly unimaginable sum—a Cardinal of the Catholic Church sells a lay brother (emphasis on "lay") to a peculiarly honest trio of con artists representing—what? Something called Alice, apparently, which is like the Christian God in being infinite and all-powerful but unlike Him in being minuscule. The three not-crooks, who resemble The Alchemist's Subtle, Face, and Doll, are casual about appearances but endlessly scrupulous about word use. They live in a giant house which contains a giant model of itself that may predate it, for they talk of the house as its "replica." When the chapel catches fire offstage, flames and smoke come out of the model. And at the end, when the money's been transferred and the former Brother Julian awaits his "bride," something approaches, room by room, in the model. Does it mean small is beautiful—or innately evil?

Within Albee's tangled verbal texture, it's hard to tell. The honest crooks often comport themselves like an unholy parody of the Church (theological haggles, internecine squabbles, repressed homosexual signals), but they also, equally, seem to be something entirely different. Maybe it's a parable about how those raised in a faith instinctively recreate its strictures in every other walk of life. Julian, articulate and polished yet stupendously naive, makes them an almost too willing foil. What he actually wants, or thinks he's getting, is—like the rest of the dramatic substance—wittily adumbrated but resolutely unclarified.

Recline of the West: Laila Robins and model in Tiny Alice
photo: T. Charles Erickson
Recline of the West: Laila Robins and model in Tiny Alice

This makes Tiny Alicehard to play, just as its constant allusions to the magnificence of the house make it a designer's challenge. Striving throughout for a high, arch tone, Mark Lamos's cast comes through effectively, if not with Arnone's total assurance. Tom Lacy, as the Cardinal, comes off best, curling his lip around the sneering lines as though he were going to eject them, like a stream of tobacco juice, into his respondent's eye. Parades of mixed feelings seem to scuttle under John Michael Higgins's veneer as the Butler named Butler (one of Albee's pop-culture jokes, on a line from All About Eve), and Stephen Rowe effectively depicts the Lawyer (can he be named Lawyer?) as an animated sadistic snarl. Laila Robins gets, I think, about 85 percent of Miss Alice, which is a high score. I wish there were more sense of her vulnerability in the scenes with Julian, and—once again—I wish she'd support her voice at peak emotional moments, instead of screaming herself hoarse. She may be screaming in frustration at Richard Thomas's imperturbability. Julian's a near-impossible role, but retreating behind an aw-shucks smile at every confrontation is no way to build toward the final agony, clearly paralleling the torment of Christ on the Cross. Here, as earlier, Lamos lets his cool hand press a little too firmly on the action, keeping Miss Alice onstage long after she should have vanished, which takes the focus off Julian just when he is all-important.

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