Twenty-one months have passed since Edward Albee’s play “Me, Myself & I” had its world premiere at the McCarter Theater. Since then, significant cast changes and presumably some tweaking of the direction and script makes this New York premiere worthy of further consideration. With McCarter’s Emily Mann remaining at the helm, the play has been given a handsome production at Playwrights Horizons. Set designer Thomas Lynch has only slightly modified his original, abstractly austere setting: the wood-paneled floor and walls are notable for their lack of decor, unless you count the double bed with its occupants smack in the center.
As Brian Murray continues to provide an amusingly bemused performance as the arguably “mad” Dr., it is worth noting how indisputably different Elizabeth Ashley is in the role of Mother, previously played (and quite well) by Tyne Daly at McCarter. Nobody does blowsy better than Ashley, and she earns a laugh with our first glimpse of her. Sitting up in the bed in her revealing floral frock, her blonde-streaked hair piled into a disheveled mess, she is seriously addled and adversarial from the get-go.
Beside her is a covered up mound that will soon awaken to reveal itself as Dr. (Murray), whose face is also spontaneously reflexive of his own state of contorted contentiousness. As Mann’s direction would necessarily be inclined to accommodate the uniquely idiosyncratic interplay between Ashley and Murray, it also seems to be more accommodating to the comical demands of the text. Every playwright, however, should have the pleasure of having actors such as Ashley and Murray to parley what is surely often pretentious gobbledygook into a refined state of irrational discourse.
Evidently meant to denote some peculiar aspect of their relationship, Dr. emerges from under the covers fully clothed in a suit and with shoes, his black bowler propped on the top of the headboard. His slumber has been disrupted by a whack to the head by OTTO (Zachary Booth), one of Mother’s identical twin sons who has come into the room for a talk with Mother. The other twin is also named (lower case) otto (Preston Sadleir), and talked about or to in lower tones. “Which one are you? I never know who you are. Are you the one who loves me?” asks the irritated but also incredulously confused Mother.
“Me, Myself & I” is a weirdly and surreally dramatized dark comedy that appears to be exploring the basis of identity. Definitely more playful than profound in its content, the essence of the play evidently stems from Albee’s own family life as a child in search of his own identity. Just as the play focuses on the issues that arise between identical twins and their mentally disoriented mother and a resented father-figure, we can assume that the reality of Albee’s early life is, if not precisely apparent, ingeniously veiled in this abstracted play.
The lauded 82-year-old playwright has every right to remain eminently enigmatic. He also has the right to be as audacious in his approach to playwriting as any young playwright testing the waters. With “Me, Myself & I,” one can see just how nimbly Albee conforms to the Theatre of the Absurd with his own American sensibility.
In regard to the plot, Mother was abandoned 28 years ago by a husband who has not been seen or heard from since. She is unsure of the identity of her 28year-old twin boys still living at home. The reason that the Mother has named one OTTO and the other otto is part of the weirdly motivated excuse she uses to justify her apparently perpetual state of confusion. But what could be stranger than the presence of Dr., presumably a psychiatrist, who has shared the Mother’s bed from the day the husband departed to parts unknown. He certainly seems prepared to flee pending the husband’s sudden return. Neither boy has any love for the slightly ditsy and often disengaged Dr., despite his hardly threatening presence. But no one can deliver a wry retort better than Murray.
While there may be scenes that pay a very real and palpable homage to the absurdist metaphysics that drive the plays by Samuel Beckett and others of that genre, this play appears to be coming from a deeply personal corner of self-analysis. It may also be seen and enjoyed simply as a loony comedy of fraternal conflict and familial discord as triggered by neurotic parental choices. It is certainly a clever consideration of how children might attempt to free themselves from the burden of being acceptable and easily defined.
It is of little consequence that the boys are no longer brunettes. The trim and blonde-haired Booth makes a strong impression as the more aggressive, meaner, and more troubled OTTO who has a solution, through denial, to sever the bond and the relationship he has with his twin. His means to an end is to become Chinese. Don’t ask. Sadleir, making his Off Broadway debut, is similar in body type and looks. He is also impressive as the more endearing, but totally confounded otto, who can’t understand why his brother has chosen to ignore his existence. This, however, doesn’t stop the sneaky OTTO from being unconscionably deceptive when it comes to otto’s girlfriend, Maureen (Natalia Payne). Payne holds her ground in a shout-out with the viper-tongued Mother.
The play, with its palpably inscrutable characters, also proves a veritable playground for Ashley and her unbridled mannerisms. The veteran actor, whom I was fortunate to see last season in both “August: Osage County,” and “Dividing the Estate,” has no equal when it comes to either dramatically flaunting her wares or in the way she seems to suck in all the air between her teeth before discharging another killer line.
There’s a part of me that thinks that Ashley’s performance more often than not overwhelms the subtler but generally unflappable Murray whose comical reflexes appear, nevertheless, just a bit more mechanical than I remember them to be. He still gets one of the play’s loudest laughs with the simply stated, “I can tell them apart.” Dr. also addresses the audience directly, as do the other characters throughout the play, with lines like “A confused audience is not an attentive one.” This aptly suggests that any confusion is of our own making and not Albee’s. But that comes before we find out that there may indeed be another OTTO/Otto in the making, an italicized one. And the unexpected appearance of a man (Stephen Payne) in a Roman chariot drawn by four black.far be it from me to spoil this coup de theatre.
“Me, Myself & I” may not be one of the more extraordinary entries in the Albee canon, but it is nevertheless a respectable example of the robust dramatic resources that still reside in this great American playwright. **
“Me, Myself & I,” through Sunday, October 10, Playwright Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. $75. 212-279-4200 or www.PlaywrightsHorizons.org.