One of Edward Albee's most distinctive playwriting signatures is his ability to inspire characters to spin endless rhetorical variations on a finite number of ideas. When those ideas are clever, expansive, and thoughtful, the resulting plays are as well: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Seascape, ,The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. But when they're under- or overcooked, the final product leaves you queasy. Me, Myself & I, having its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons under Emily Mann’s direction, is one of those.
Whether it's been left on the fire too long or been pulled from the heat before it's fully gelled is difficult to determine. I'm actually tempted to say it's both, as the play and production are sometimes raw and sometimes burnt, and rarely taste just right. This is not the fault of the cast; led by Brian Murray and Elizabeth Ashley as the Albee-archetypal bickering cosmic marrieds, they do what they can with what they have to work with. The problem is, you're never sure they know exactly what that is.
One moment it seems like yet another extension of Albee's exploration of the "child who may or may not exist" concept that drove ...Virginia Woolf? and The Play About the Baby, another it plays like a meditation on language, and by the end it's devolved almost completely into meta-theatrical fantasy. If you asked me what I think the play is most germanely about, I'd cite a five-minute argument near the end that addresses the uncertain and unsettling nature of individual and group identity. But someone pointing to Murray and Ashley's second-act picnic-lunch grammar dust-up as proof the subject is our making words increasingly meaningless would not be less right.
Those two notions do interlock — barely — but the only certain thing is that the central figures are 28-year-old identical twin brothers (Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir) named OTTO and otto. The former has declared that he no longer has a brother and, because this is an Albee play, it's not long before the mens' mom (Ashley), her shack-up friend Dr. (Murray), and otto's girlfriend Maureen (Natalia Payne) all start wondering whether he might be right. And, oh yes, OTTO has found a replacement brother and wants to become Chinese.
Your tolerance for this play will exclusively depend on your ability to stomach listening to these five unpleasant people debate these topics for two hours, invariably with more obfuscation than clarity. Everyone speaks in half-finished, if not often half-formed, sentences, sometimes consisting of only one or two words, and little can be taken at face value. For example, is Mother's 10-minute speech about her sons' bizarre naming convention a brilliant commentary on an increasingly anonymous society, is it dramatic shorthand for cataloging the character’s encroaching insanity, or is it merely a way to impart in five hundred words a message that could have been communicated in ten?
My choice is the last, primarily because economy is hardly a concern here, and there's so much repetition on the issues of naming, referring to, and focusing on the inner nature of things that I wouldn't put it past Albee. But even with Ashley's barking growl of a voice making a thunderous soliloquy from an overwritten ramble, you're not drawn into either her world or that of the twins, who've never really known exactly who or why they are. (Dad took one look at them on delivery day, and hightailed it out of the hospital.)
Sadleir and especially Booth are surprisingly good differentiating between the twins. But without an anchor to their characters’ troubles, the rest of Me, Myself & I unfolds more like a linguistic party trick than a play. Even with Dr. on your side — he came onto the scene right after the twins' father left — and Murray deliciously struggling to serve as an effective audience avatar (and succeeding as much as any actor could, one suspects), you're never quite sure what the fuss is about.
Unlike Tom Stoppard, who links his word games directly to his characters' intellectual and emotional lives, Albee typically ties his to mood — something he’s forgotten to supply in sufficient quantity this time around. Mann's chilly production, with a ghostly proscenium-knock-off set (by Thomas Lynch) and pastel lighting (Kenneth Posner), doesn't align the elements toward a central goal, but instead lets them run free until the final scene, when she finally funnels them all into place.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that's the evening's most satisfying section because everyone occupies the same play at the same time. Until then, you've got the twins' Twilight Zone, Mother's fever dream, Dr.'s pub night, and Maureen's hyperactive diary entry. What you never have is consistency. The point of Me, Myself & I could very well be that the junk drawers of our minds hold all the answers, just never easy ones. But with so much clutter scattered around, who can say for sure? Albee doesn’t need to provide all the answers, but he’s usually much better than he is here at making sure you understand all the questions.
Me, Myself & I