Edward Albee contends that his play Tiny Alice is actually very simple. Everyone but the critics seems to understand it just fine, he says. In fact he blames the critics for confusing people. Audiences who saw the play in previews in 1964 had little trouble deciphering the meaning, Albee said recently. But after the critics came and said the play was difficult, people started leaving the theater looking perplexed and frustrated.
Albee is being disingenuous. The play is not simple. Tiny Alice is epistemology disguised as drama, and rather than present his ideas clearly, Albee, like some insecure scholar, chooses to obfuscate at every opportunity. Many passages are perversely ambiguous, even when read over and over, and for the current production by Touchstone Theatre, Albee cut a large portion of dialogue that provided a clue to the play's meaning. Perhaps he was worried that after 25 years people might be starting to figure out what Tiny Alice is all about.
Albee describes Tiny Alice as a "metaphysical dream play," and his description is apt, for, like a dream, its meaning exists on two levels. On the surface level, a lawyer for the extremely wealthy Miss Alice visits the cardinal and announces that Miss Alice intends to donate $100 million a year to the church for the next 20 years. The lawyer and the cardinal are fierce rivals who mock and humiliate each other the way George and Martha do in Albee's best-known play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But the two men eventually reach an agreement--the cardinal will send his assistant, a lay brother named Julian, to work out the details of the gift with Miss Alice.
When Brother Julian visits her, the butler ushers him into a room that contains an extremely detailed model of her mansion. The butler, whose last name is Butler, points out that the model even has a tiny reproduction of the model in it.
Julian finally meets Miss Alice, an old woman with gray hair who is terribly hard of hearing. But after a bit of small talk, she stands up, removes her wig, and becomes a beautiful young woman who promptly begins a campaign to seduce Julian. This enrages the lawyer, who has been Miss Alice's lover, but she eventually marries Julian. Then she promptly deserts him, leaving him alone with the "tiny" Alice in the model.
The startling images disguise issues Albee considers crucial and disturbing, the most pressing of which seems to be the human tendency to confuse symbols with the reality that is symbolized. Julian, for example, cannot accept the symbols of God that many people worship. He spent six years in a mental institution for that very reason--he wanted to experience the substance of God, the real thing that the symbols represent. "I could not reconcile myself to the chasm between the nature of God and the use to which men put . . . God," he says.
The model of the mansion is a wry depiction of this clash between symbol and the thing symbolized. Is the model a replica of the mansion? Or is the mansion a replica of the model? When the model begins to smoke because a fire has broken out in the little room representing the chapel, the men rush off to put out the fire in the chapel of the real mansion.
Although Julian claims he wants to experience God directly, without the symbolic intermediaries most people rely on to make the abstract concept of a deity easier to grasp, he becomes distraught at the end of the play when he is "married" to the abstraction--to the tiny Alice in the model. "There is nothing there!" Julian screams, longing for Miss Alice--the voluptuous flesh-and-blood symbol of the tiny Alice in the model. In the play's final moments, as Julian stands dying in a crucifixion pose against the model, he either experiences the abstraction directly, or creates one final self-delusion to help him believe in what he knows doesn't really exist. Albee specifically leaves the interpretation open.
Tiny Alice is more of a philosophical discourse than a drama. Though the first scene, which pits the lawyer against the cardinal, is intensely dramatic, the rest of the play proceeds like a dream, with odd images and an arbitrary plot expected to carry the weight of the playwright's heavy ideas. And, like a dream, it is nonsense if not interpreted. However, interpreting someone else's dream is a mere intellectual exercise--not the visceral experience provided by good drama.
The arid quality of the play is emphasized by the Touchstone production, which was directed by Ina Marlowe but supervised by Albee himself. Though Marlowe has coaxed some intense performances from the cast, the actors remain curiously disconnected from the words they utter, as though they don't really understand the play either. Kendall Marlowe, as the cardinal, and Alfred H. Wilson, as the lawyer, generate some sparks during their argument in the first scene, but the subsequent dream atmosphere seems to leave the actors in a daze. Paul Myers, a young actor, brings a sincere innocence to Brother Julian, but even his loud, anguished cries fail to suggest a man in profound spiritual turmoil. Amanda Sullivan suggests the sensuality and haughty self-confidence of Miss Alice, but leaves the rest of her personality vague and unfocused. And while Larry Hart adds a nice touch of sweetness to Butler, his character remains oddly detached from his friend Brother Julian.
Tiny Alice is not provocative or entertaining in its own right. While essential viewing for anyone interested in tracing the arc of Albee's thought, the play has little to offer anyone else.