Hartford Stage continues to carry the flame for Edward Albee’s rarely produced 1964 enigma “Tiny Alice,” its current revisitation being the play’s first major revival since Hartford Stage mounted it in 1972. It was well worth a second visit, for no matter how much of a puzzlement the play may be, there’s no denying that it contains some of Albee’s most gleamingly coruscating dialogue. Has Albee ever written anything more brilliantly, bitingly vicious than this play’s opening scene between a lawyer and a cardinal who have utterly loathed each other since they were at school together?
And since one of the greatest pleasures of theatergoing is hearing and seeing accomplished actors exploring and reveling in splendid dialogue, this production is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the New England theater season, not the least because of its excellent cast, direction and setting.
If the play’s third act (to which the playwright has restored some cut material) doesn’t truly deliver on the promises of its two preceding acts, “Tiny Alice” is still one of Albee’s most endlessly fascinating creations, not the least because it is such a tantalizing puzzle.
As the play’s central character, a lay brother who has survived a major loss of faith, Richard Thomas gives one of his most admirable performances. Robed and bespectacled, he performs with tremendous technical skill in the service of a portrayal of potent simplicity and humility. He’s superb.
But so is the rest of the cast, beginning with Gerry Bamman and Tom Lacy as the opening scene’s antagonists. They are glorious sparring partners, Bamman a viciously cruel lawyer, Lacy a plumply pompous prelate. And in what is in a sense the play’s comic-relief role (except for the fact that the whole play is shot through with comedy), John Michael Higgins is deliciously sly and wry as the butler named Butler whose casual insolence is so playful.
In the difficult title role of Miss Alice, apparently a multibillionairess offering a gift of multibillions to the Catholic Church — who may or may not be a stand-in for God — Sharon Scruggs performs with considerable panache and does not let the production’s high acting standards down. She is not, however, helped by Constance Hoffman’s costumes, and she may not be ideally cast, lacking the cool, ladylike elegance Irene Worth gave the role in its original Broadway production.
Thomas, on the other hand, may be better cast than John Gielgud was originally as Brother Julian. In any case, Scruggs and Thomas work wonderfully together, especially in the second act’s still-shocking seduction finale.
Mark Lamos, in a return to the theater of which he was artistic director for so many years, has directed at the top of his form. And set designer John Arnone has given the play’s various locales a chilly minimalist grandeur that suits Albee down to the ground. The model of the elaborate castle in which Miss Alice lives (shipped stone by stone from England by her father) dominates the stage as it should, and there very well might by a Tiny Alice living in it. Or is it a mouse?
Much of the play could well be said to be a comedy of manners, its dialogue quite up to the quality of Shaw and Wilde. There are also suggestions of theater of the absurd, notably Beckett, of T.S. Eliot, and even of Tennessee Williams in his lush “Suddenly Last Summer” mode as it explores “the relationship between sexual hysteria and religious ecstasy,” to quote Albee.
But at the same time, “Tiny Alice” is pure Albee, and at the Hartford Stage it’s receiving a production that really should be seen beyond Hartford in order for the play to be seen and reassessed more widely.