Playwright Edward Albee has called his mystifying 1964 “Tiny Alice” a “metaphysical melodrama.”
At the very least, it’s a metaphorical exploration of the nature of religious faith, specifically of Catholicism, and more specifically of the dichotomy between the God we’ve invented to suit ourselves and a possibly true and unknowable God.
Beyond that, to many, “Tiny Alice” (a name, by the way, that’s never mentioned as such in the play) is simply indecipherable.
We can certainly agree that it’s elusive. While Marin Theatre Company’s polished production, directed by Jasson Minadakis, can’t make such a challenging play crystal-clear, it’s nevertheless an engrossing and dramatic three-hour journey despite some very long and overwritten sequences, particularly the final one.
The world’s richest woman — the seductive and cloistered Miss Alice (an alluring, carefully calibrated performance by Carrie Paff) — has offered a local church a huge grant, to be apportioned annually.
The business details are arranged between her nasty lawyer-lover (played with malicious gusto by Rod Gnapp) and the church’s cardinal (Richard Farrell, impressively pompous and equally malicious); the two were once schoolmate enemies (their sadistic interchanges recall the iconic George and Martha in Albee’s much more successful “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).
“Tiny Alice’s” central character, the humble lay brother Julian, who’s the cardinal’s faithful secretary (Andrew Hurteau, wonderfully baffled and tormented, with a perpetual nervous giggle), is dispatched to Miss Alice’s mansion as courier.
There, he’s manipulated, for murky reasons, by a lethal trio: the lawyer, who’s Miss Alice’s lover; a butler named Butler (an overly mannered but at times very witty portrayal by Mark Anderson Phillips) who’s Miss Alice’s former lover; and the enigmatic Miss Alice, who at various times tricks the hapless Julian, seduces him, teases him, rejects him, and ultimately seems to comfort him.
Lawyer, butler and employer relate to one another in odd and ambiguous ways.
Julian is fascinatingly complex : unworldly, with a tenuous grasp of reality, and a yearning for religious faith and martyrdom that resembles sexual lust.
Looming upstage is set designer J.B. Wilson’s elegant model of the very castle they’re all in. It represents a sort of parallel universe — another dimension, as it’s described — in which resides, insist the trio, the “real” Alice.
The corporeal Miss Alice herself, they tell Julian, is a mere surrogate. Which Alice is the true Alice, or
perhaps the true God? We’re as confused, and at times as intrigued, as the gullible Julian.
Where: Marin Theatre Co., 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays-Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 26
Tickets: $32 to $53
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org