The play hasn't appeared on a Bay Area stage since 1967. That's when an upstart company called A.C.T. -- in its first San Francisco season since moving from Pittsburgh -- staged a revised version of the script without permission from Edward Albee, its famously persnickety author. (As Auntie Mame observed, "When you're from Pittsburgh, you have to do something.") Albee attended a preview performance, discovered that the company hadn't paid for the rights to produce the play, and understandably threw a fit. Ever since then, he has insisted on personal approval of any director who wants to stage his plays.
That's only one reason Tiny Alice remains so seldom seen. Two other reasons: It's a three-hour religious allegory, and it hasn't aged terribly well. In fact, after catching Jasson Minadakis's scrupulously faithful staging at MTC, I'd say that the play is close to unwatchable.
The story, in brief: a cardinal (Richard Farrell) asks his doe-eyed lay secretary, Julian (Andrew Hurteau), to serve as liaison to a reclusive billionaire named Alice (Carrie Paff). Over the course of the play, Julian finds himself more and more in thrall to Alice, even as her former lovers -- a lawyer named Lawyer (Rod Gnapp) and a butler named Butler (Mark Anderson Phillips) -- plot the poor guy's downfall.
In her program notes, dramaturg Margot Melcon tells us that when the play premiered on Broadway in 1964, fresh off the mammoth success of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, critics were less than pleased. According to Melcon, reviewers "did not understand the play and, therefore, criticized it."
Frankly, the play isn't that difficult to understand, and it's not as impervious to criticism as Melcon suggests. Tiny Alice foregrounds its own blatant symbolism too self-consciously to qualify as obscure. And though A.C.T. was foolish to cut the text without the author's permission in 1967, the play could stand to be about 1,000 words shorter. It's long -- very long. The final scene in particular is inexcusable in its indulgence and ponderousness and excess.
Granted, that last scene might have improved with stronger casting. Hurteau makes for a bland Julian, even by ingénue standards. Other performers are more successful at capturing the play's peculiar rhythms; I especially liked Farrell's Cardinal and Phillips's primly menacing Butler. But the small pleasures afforded by their performances can't sustain this enterprise into its third hour.
Some may praise Minadakis for hewing so closely to the playwright's vision, but it's not like he had a choice. Albee keeps him in check. By insisting that directors continue to stage his work in strict adherence to his intentions, the playwright has inadvertently revealed Tiny Alice to be nothing more or less than the edgiest play of 1964.