“Tiny Alice” by Edward Albee at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo by Kevin Berne: Andrew Hurteau, Carrie Paff

Scary Good

Classic stories about deals with the Devil have always intrigued us, from “Faust” to “Damn Yankees” to “Rosemary’s Baby” and beyond. The spellbinding “Tiny Alice” by Edward Albee, which has inspired both outrage and admiration for almost 47 years, is one of the most original stories of this genre. In its newest production at Marin Theatre Company, “Tiny Alice” shines the spotlight on lofty distinctions: between heavenly faith, and that which passes for faith in the world of men; between the true God, and the god that man has created in his own image. But these concepts, provocative as they are in their own right, merely drive the story. The foundation of “Tiny Alice” lies in diabolical horror, pure and simple.

When it opened in December 1964, Albee’s eerie tale of God and Mammon with a supernatural twist was, to say the least, unexpected from the newest rising star of the Broadway scene. Albee was still being lauded for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which in 1963 had captured five Tony Awards, including one for Best Play. As his newest work, “Tiny Alice” quickly became potent fodder for philosophical and theological discussion, but it was controversial and largely misunderstood despite six Tony nominations and the Award for Best Actress going to Irene Worth.

The premise revolves around the world’s richest woman, the mysterious and reclusive Miss Alice (Carrie Paff), who wishes to give away billions of dollars to the Catholic Church and every other religion as well. In the opening scene, her emissary, the unnamed Lawyer (Rod Gnapp), pays a visit to the Cardinal (Richard Farrell) to discuss how this huge bounty to the Church may be delivered. Verbal sniping between these longtime foes becomes a jousting match to see who can deliver the sharpest jabs. Farrell imbues the Cardinal with just the right amount of snarky pomposity to counter the primal viciousness of Gnapp’s Lawyer. In his role, Gnapp is the man you love to hate. He maintains a pedal-to-the-metal malicious intensity, all the while carrying a dark secret, no easy task for an actor.

It’s finally decided that the Cardinal’s trusted aide, the lay Brother Julian (Andrew Hurteau), will call upon Miss Alice at her palatial mansion to make the necessary arrangements to transfer the first billion dollars. Can Brother Julian serve two masters and still keep his faith? What happens next is impossible to describe without revealing too much and spoiling the fun.

Andrew Hurteau as Brother Julian displays masterful gifts not just as an actor but as a storyteller. Despite Julian’s meek demeanor, he is positively riveting in every scene. Carrie Paff’s Miss Alice is a Mephistopheles-like character, cool and ethereal one moment, a smoldering temptress the next, who is not what she seems. Her costumes (by Fumiko Bielefeldt) match her character, flowing like a choreographed dance of worldly seduction. Miss Alices’s Butler (Mark Anderson Phillips) is slyly aloof and dryly witty, less a butler and more a co-conspirator. His quirky, stylized mannerisms and cadence of speech give him an otherworldly quality.

The simple elegance of the set, by Scenic Designer JB Wilson, invokes an appropriately smoky sense of foreboding. The centerpiece of the entire show is the model house in Miss Alice’s library, designed by Wilson and detailed by Properties Artisan Seren Helday. This is one Dollhouse From Hell you won’t soon forget. It truly has a life of its own…more we cannot say. The original musical score by Chris Houston, with its atmospheric, pensive strings, essentially defines the story in sound.

We see director Jasson Minadakis as diamond-cutter, where one false move could mean disaster. Instead, the result is nothing less than a chilling triumph. After reading the play in college over 20 years ago, he became obsessed with staging it, and that obsession has really paid off. Under his guiding hand, the mysterious path of the story is clearly revealed facet by facet, scene by scene, and leads relentlessly to its nightmarish conclusion. Playwright Albee tells his audience to not analyze what they see and hear onstage – they should just “let the play happen to them”. Good advice, indeed. Mr Albee should be very pleased.

When: Now through June 26, 2011
8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays
2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays
2 p.m. Saturday June 25
1 p.m. Thursday June 16
Tickets: $32 to $53
Location: Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941
Phone: 415-388-5208
Website: www.marintheatre.org