“You’re familiar, I’ve seen you every day of your life” a mother tells one of her sons in Edward Albee’s latest play, “but I don’t know who you are.” “You’re speaking metaphorically here,” says the man in the black homburg who shares Mother’s bed. “No, you asshole,” Mother replies. “I don’t know whohe is.”
Her sons, you see, are identical twins in Albee’s “Me, Myself & I,” which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons. Although they are 28 years old, she has never been able to tell them apart. It can’t help that Mother named them both Otto. Actually, one is OTTO and the other otto.
But this particular exchange between Albee’s characters can be interpreted as a message the playwright is delivering to his audience, a cross between a taunt, a tease and a warning: We look for deeper meaning in this playful play full of wordplay at the risk of feeling like asses.
In at least one way, “Me, Myself & I” is an impressive accomplishment, and I don’t mean because the production offers an opportunity to watch some splendid actors and a few visually arresting moments. The script is an oddly adolescent work by a bad-boy trickster who just happens to be 82 years old and a theatrical institution – author of some 30 plays over half a century, winner of three Tonys and three Pulitzers, on many people’s lists of great American playwrights.
In Albee’s latest effort, one unlikely to win him his fourth Pulitzer, OTTO wants to become Chinese and deny that his brother otto exists. He also awaits the day that his father, who abandoned them at birth, returns in a chariot pulled by black panthers and filled with green emeralds. His desires don’t sit well with the rest of the cast – his mother, who is often confused and always a bigot; his mother’s doctor and long-time paramour who seems only to be visiting (he wears his suit in bed) although he has been doing so for 28 years; OTTO’s brother otto; OTTO’s brother otto’s girlfriend Maureen, who, like the twins’ mother, cannot tell them apart, a situation that leads closest to what might be called a plot.
Albee fills up most of the (long) two hours of the play by pulling moments out of a Felix the cat-like bag of theatrical tricks, recalling (but not equaling) works by Oscar Wilde (the comic confusion of identities from “The Importance of Being Earnest”), Shakespeare (all those comedies involving twins), Pirandello (the self-consciousness of characters revealing themselves as actors on a stage) and especially Samuel Beckett (the existential vaudeville routines)….oh, and early Albee too.
Running throughout the dialogue are seemingly-irrelevant observations about linguistic oddities (why do we have to say “ta-ta” instead of just “ta” to mean “goodbye”) in the style of the wordplay specialist Richard Lederer, who (it is pointless to point out) is Albee’s exact contemporary. Albee even puts in a near-classical Deus ex machina that I won’t ruin by revealing.
It helps immeasurably in experiencing this absurdist stew are the performances of long-time pros Elizabeth Ashley as the Mother and Brian Murray as Doctor, her bedmate, and those of the newcomers, especially Zachary Booth as the evil OTTO. He and Preston Sadleir really do look remarkably alike, surely due in part to costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser (and of course the casting directors).
A PhD awaits someone who will compare the trajectory of the work of Albee with that of Beckett, who lived until the age of 83, and whose plays became ever-shorter. His last one, “What Where,” lasted seven minutes. Albee seems to be going in the opposite direction: His first play, “The Zoo Story” – a phenomenal success – was a one-act that a half-century after its debut he expanded to two acts, and renamed “Peter and Jerry.” I probably would have enjoyed “Me, Myself & I” better if Albee’s new exercise in the Theater of the Absurd had recalled its older work by being short and quick.
Me, Myself & I by Edward Albee Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street) Directed by Emily Mann Scenic design by Thomas Lynch, costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Darron West, casting by Alaine Alldaffer and Laura Stanczyk Cast: Elizabeth Ashley, Zachary Booth, Brian Murray Natalia Payne, Stephen Payne, Preston Sadleir Running time: Two hours with one intermission Ticket prices: $75. Rush (under 30 years old): $20, Student rush: $15 The play is scheduled to run through October 10, 2010