Playwright has four productions on the boards

PRINCETON, N.J. — It’s the season of the play in New York, but it’s also the season of one distinguished American playwright: Edward Albee. Coinciding with his 80th birthday in March, Albee will have four productions on the boards this season, including the world premiere of “Me, Myself & I.”

The new play bows not on Broadway but 49 miles away, at McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., where it was commissioned. Taking on themes of identity, family and existence, “Me, Myself & I” involves 28-year-old identical twins, both named Otto, and their mother, played by Tyne Daly. McCarter a.d. and playwright Emily Mann helms the production, marking her third collaboration with Albee, after directing “Marriage Play” in 1992 and “All Over” in 2002, both at

McCarter. The Jan. 25 official opening was delayed a week for Albee to make fixes after the first performance.

In addition to his new play, Albee’s “Peter and Jerry,” a full-length work expanded from his early one-act “The Zoo Story,” recently wrapped a successful run at Second Stage, starring Bill Pullman and Dallas Roberts. Albee will direct a double bill of “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox” at the Cherry Lane March 4-April 12. And Mercedes Ruehl will star in Signature Theater Company’s “Occupant,” running May 6-June 29.

The easy camaraderie and trust between director and playwright was evident at a Jan. 3 discussion at Princeton’s Public Library. Albee and Mann finished each other’s sentences and traded quips. “Playwrights have a real shorthand with each other that maybe other people don’t,” Albee told the audience in the overflowing assembly room.

The commission marks the first in the Princeton U./McCarter Playwriting Fellowship, a program that commissions major artists to write a play and teach a course to Princeton undergrads. The Ford Foundation is underwriting the first two phases of the program, supporting Albee’s commission and the next master playwright, John Guare.

Founded in the 1930s, McCarter hasn’t been a Broadway roadhouse since it became a producing org in the ’60s. Still, New York theatergoers have seen a lot of work shepherded by the N.J. theater lately. During the 2006-07 season, McCarter sent two plays to Broadway –

August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” and Garry Hynes’ staging of Brian Friel’s “Translations.”

The step-up in commercial transfers is more a result of deepened alliances between the theater and producers who appreciate its work than a conscious trend for McCarter, according to Mann and producing director Mara Isaacs.

“It’s the work that leads the process, not ambition that leads the choice of work,” says Isaacs. She is seeking commercial enhancement for a show next season.

“We are a not-for-profit theater with an incredible support system,” adds Mann. “We can attract some of the finest people here because we can take risks.”

Albee concurs. “There’s a danger in trying to turn art into commerce,” he suggests. “I tell young theater people, hold on to your values. They can’t have theater without the playwrights. Hold your ground.”

The young people in his Princeton seminar, “Albee on Albee,” jointly taught with theater and dance program director Michael Cadden, hear this advice directly. Along with getting the opportunity to discuss Albee’s work with him, they also read “Me, Myself & I” and become involved in rehearsals and previews. Several, admits Albee with a note of disappointment, went home for vacation instead.

He says his students are surprised the play seems young and up-to-date: “I don’t write old plays now; I didn’t write young plays when I was young.”

“No great playwright is dated,” offers producer Liz

McCann, who has commercial rights to transfer “Me, Myself & I” but has not confirmed plans for New York. “If a playwright is writing about universal themes, the audience is there for them.”

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