This year playwright Edward Albee, an icon of American theater, who is celebrating his 80th birthday in March, finds himself on a roll with productions in the New York area. In Manhattan, the Second Stage Theater premiered a new play in October, "Peter and Jerry" (reviewed in U.S.1 on December 19). This spring Albee returns to the Cherry Lane Theater, where a number of his early one-act plays were first produced during the 1960s, to direct a new mounting of "The American Dream" and "The Sandbox." In May the Signature Theater will present "Occupant," his play about the artist Louise Nevelson.
But perhaps the most impressive event will be the world premiere of a completely new, full-length play, "Me, Myself and I," at McCarter Theater, directed by Emily Mann. The play goes into previews on Friday, January 11, and opening night is Friday, January 18. The plot, according to publicity material, concerns a mother, played by Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Tyne Daly, and her identical twin sons, both called Otto, played by Colin Donnell and Michael Esper. (Do we think "identity" questions?) Brian Murray plays Daly’s live-in psychiatrist/lover. Rounding out the cast are Charlotte Parry, who McCarter audiences will remember from "The Birthday Party" and Stephen Payne, who McCarter audiences will remember from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
As an introduction to the world premiere, Albee met with a number of press representatives to talk – well, it turns out, to talk about anything but the play itself and what it might mean. At the backstage gathering, held before the company proceeded with the day’s rehearsal, Albee looked rather chipper for almost 80, and reminded me of a sly and wiry contented cat as he sat to field questions, smile, and continually brush his hands back and forth over the table top.
True to his promise, Albee didn’t tell us anything about "Me, Myself and I." The most animated moment of the press conference was a tirade against the current administration in Washington and "this guy who thinks he’s president…got there through a coup d’etat rather than being elected."
As for his thoughts on becoming an octogenarian, Albee told the press at McCarter, "I suppose you’re supposed to accumulate a little more wisdom with age. It doesn’t happen, but it’s supposed to." Though he does admit that experience has given him an increasing command of his craft. Once he is through this marathon of performances, he says he is anxious to get back to writing yet another play, which is already percolating in his mind.
Albee’s playwriting process, as he describes it, seems almost mystical. "I see it and hear it as a play being performed in front of me while I’m writing it." That is why he prefers to direct his own plays as he says that he wants to see the play as he envisions it, at least the first time up. He terms this "damned efficient." However he finds working with director Emily Mann an exception to his rule. "She’s somebody who I respect, who’s intelligent and creative. It’s an advantage that she is both a director and a playwright." He laughs when he adds, "She has more sympathy for playwrights than other directors."
After the press conference I turned to actor Brian Murray to give me a little more insight into this play. His name may not be as well known as Tyne Daley’s, but his face, voice, and reputation are very familiar to Broadway audiences. In fact when I see his name on a cast list, I always smile to myself, knowing that I’m in for a treat.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was a child performer, Murray came to Great Britain when he was just leaving his teens, and has been acting almost nonstop all of his life. He came to the United States with the famous Royal Shakespeare Theater Company tour of "King Lear," directed by Peter Brook with Paul Scofield as Lear, Irene Worth as Goneril, Diana Rigg as Cordelia, and Murray as Edgar. Falling in love with Manhattan, he has lived and worked here ever since, and is now an American citizen. "I don’t want to leave New York and this area for very long. I don’t do the other coast at all." He shudders, "I just can’t."
His Broadway credits include his first American foray as Rosencrantz in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. His other Broadway performances have consistently drawn award nominations, and an occasional "win," including: "Sleuth," "Da," "Noises Off," and revivals of "The Little Foxes," "Uncle Vanya," and "The Crucible." The list of his Off-Broadway appearances is long and noteworthy as well.
His performance in "Me, Myself, and I" is his third Albee production so he has a reasonable acquaintance with this terrain. With actress Marion Seldes, he performed in a double bill of Beckett monologues and a short Albee play called "Counting the Ways." This one-act about a married couple begins with the words, "Do you love me?" and ends with the other character asking the same question at the end of the play. Together again, Seldes and Murray played the older couple in Albee’s dark comedy, "The Play About the Baby," in which they advise and menace a younger couple. In the play Murray’s character says, "Wounds, children, wounds. Learn from it. Without wounds, what are you?"
When I ask Murray what "Me, Myself, and I" is about, he reminds me that Albee responded once to this same question, "About two hours." However, Murray does offer give a clue: "It’s about parenting, the relationship between a mother and her children, and in this case, also the relationship with the step-parent." He says that his role, though not technically the father, fills that bill as a sort of stepfather. "He has been around since the boys were babies, and they feel toward him somewhat like children feel toward a step-parent: slightly contemptuous. They know that their mother needs him and thereby they put up with him – somewhat reluctantly."
Murray is very respectful and admiring of the Albee text. "The workings of Edward’s gifts are as mysterious as the workings of a Rolls Royce. You think `Well, this is dialogue that is strange and maybe I don’t understand it,’ but you learn it and you learn it exactly. And this is very important about Edward’s work. You learn it to the word, even the punctuation, even to the number of ellipses because he writes musically and his rhythms are perfect. Even if you don’t understand it and you might be puzzled by it, the moment you’re on the stage with an audience, it’s sweet."
Surprisingly he reveals that this play is funny. "It’s comparatively lighthearted, not frivolous, but not that far away from farce," says Murray. He feels that the challenge of working on an Albee play is to avoid sentimentality but with this play there is a kind of tenderness. He finds it interesting that the second act, written after the death of Albee’s companion of 33 years, is more lighthearted than the first act. "It’s got a sort of freedom, and it’s kind of daft. When I first read it, I told Edward that it’s like a Marx brothers farce with four people. Albee said, `That’s what I intended.’"
Murray says another unique element in this play is Albee’s characterization of a mother. "Having read the Mel Gusso biography of Albee," Murray says, "It’s no secret that he couldn’t stand his own mother." With this latest mother character, Murray feels that maybe now Albee has forgiven her. In "Me, Myself, and I" the mother is different in that "she’s far more vulnerable, less impervious, slightly ditsy and silly rather than the battleship mother. And this play is also different in that it has a very strong father figure, in this case, a stepfather who is very sane and in touch with reality."
Albee first dazzled the New York theater community in 1958 with a series of short plays including "The Zoo Story," "The Death of Bessie Smith," "The Sandbox," and "The American Dream." Then in 1962 he made a colossal splash with "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," a scathing look at marriage, which proceeded to win critical acclaim, topped by that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. This was followed by another Albee play almost every theater season. In 1969 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "A Delicate Balance" and a second Pulitzer in 1975 for "Seascape."
However in the ’80s, he fell out of favor and the plays he produced during this period were drubbed by the critics and ran around a week each: "The Lady from Dubuque" in 1980, and "Lolita" in 1981 (if you ever want to read a really scathing review, look up Frank Rich’s in The New York Times). In "The Man with Three Arms" in 1983 Albee took aim at the critics and they returned fire. That was it for Albee and Broadway for the rest of that decade.
Then in 1994 with his play "Three Tall Women" produced at the Off Broadway Vineyard Theater, suddenly Albee was hot again. Somehow the theater gods just don’t think any playwright should have a continuous run of success. Albee hasn’t been their only victim. But his scorn for critics continues and one can understand that. He also isn’t impressed with Broadway theater, especially popular musicals and most theater audiences. Undaunted he continues with his work to startle, amaze, and confound audiences. My daughter describes her reaction to "The Goat or Who is Sylvia," 2002, about a man who has a love relationship with the title character, as an amazing theatrical experience. As she tells it, some people irately stomped out during the performance, and after the play was over other people stayed to argue about the play. This must have pleased Albee as he has always seemed to want to shake up the world.
While in Princeton Albee has taught a number of student workshops, including one this past semester at Princeton University. At the press conference he told us that he instructs his students that they must remember that without them, there would be no play and to hold their own council and not be trampled by dramaturgs or critics.
When I introduced myself to Albee at McCarter, he queried, "What’s U.S. 1?" I just happened to have a copy with me, which I produced and added that there was a review of "Peter and Jerry" in it. When he left, he picked up the paper and said, "I think I’ll read this." Hmmmm. So he does read what the "damnable" critics say. Thankfully, the one now in his hands of Peter and Jerry is positive.
"Me, Myself and I," previews begin Friday, January 11, 8 p.m. the Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. World premiere of a dark comedy about twin brothers by Edward Albee. Directed by Emily Mann. Opening night is Friday, January 18. The play runs through Sunday, February 17. $30 to $49. 609-258-2787.