Ever since he broke through a half-century ago with “The Zoo Story,” Edward Albee has been reflecting on inextricably bound opposites: Husband and wife, man and animal, truth and illusion, experience and callowness, complacency and engagement.

Ever since he broke through a half-century ago with “The Zoo Story,” Edward Albee has been reflecting on inextricably bound opposites: Husband and wife, man and animal, truth and illusion, experience and callowness, complacency and engagement. In “Me, Myself & I,” premiering at McCarter Theater, he splits a single person into conflicted halves, creating human palindromes out of identical twins, both named Otto. But while it ostensibly deals with identity, the real subject of Albee’s first new full-length play to be produced in six years is the writer’s deep ambivalence about family, with an especially skeptical regard for the maternal role.

There are overlaps here with any number of works from the Albee canon, but arguably the closest parallels are to “The Play About the Baby” and “Three Tall Women,” directly inspired by the writer’s adoptive mother.

Having talked openly in interviews about being an orphan raised in an unhappy home environment with inattentive parents, Albee here undertakes an oblique exploration into issues hatched from that upbringing. It hardly seems casual that the title suggests self-exposure.

But while it’s rewarding to see America’s greatest living dramatist tackling personal themes at age 80, not to mention furthering the absurdist experimentation that has colored much of his work, “Me, Myself & I” is one of Albee’s more distancing plays. The perennial battle of wills here is ill-defined, and the customarily agile wordplay remains exactly that.

Albee’s views on theatergoers’ tenuous attention spans are well-known, and in a play that repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, one character here cautions against losing the audience: “You’re confusing them, and a confused audience is not an attentive one, I read somewhere.” Flaunting those rules is a hallmark of the anti-conventionalist writer, but it requires balancing elements. Here, the text’s cryptic abstraction stubbornly refuses to yield a point of entry that might have allowed the brittle comedy to become moving or unsettling. Its cleverness is an end unto itself.

In her third collaboration with Albee, McCarter a.d. Emily Mann has given the exasperating play a fluid staging on Thomas Lynch’s arrestingly spare stagescape — an appropriately blank, vast, paneled space of pale grays and blues, housing only a marital bed or twin beds and stained with insidious shadows by lighting designer Kenneth Posner.

As the unnamed mother at the play’s center, Tyne Daly brings unexpected echoes of Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Ethel Merman doing Beckett is a notion that comes repeatedly to mind in this brassy but never entirely unsympathetic take on a woman of dubious parenting skills. Having given birth to identical twin boys 28 years ago, she staunchly defends the logic of naming them OTTO (Michael Esper) and otto (Colin Donnell), even if she can distinguish them only by how they feel about her: “Are you the one who hates me?”

The twins’ father left the delivery room and vanished after their birth but their mother’s resentment is tempered by rose-tinted memories of his devotion: “I love you beyond reason,” she recalls him saying. “I will bathe you in emeralds.” Those gems also figure in OTTO’s idealized picture of his absent parent, and his belief the man might still return: “March right in, rich as Croesus, sacks of emeralds, panthers in tow.”

Closest thing to a voice of reason in the household is the mother’s live-in shrink and lover, identified only as Dr. (Albee vet Brian Murray). While he moved in directly after the father’s exit, the doc remains a transient family member, keeping his suit, tie and shoes on even in bed, and his bowler hat close by. He is untroubled by the problem of recognizing one Otto from another, since he knows that neither of them love him.

Murray superbly plays the Dr.’s mix of befuddlement and dismay, freely identifying the cause of the twins’ identity issues as their mother’s irrational behavior. “You strew confusion in your path,” he tells her. The chief source of the play’s weird, abrasive energy is Murray and Daly batting dialogue back and forth between them, remarking over odd figures of speech as the mother anxiously questions the meaning of seemingly innocuous words and phrases.

Their personalities dictated by their upper- and lower-case names, OTTO is loud and spiteful while otto is softer and more sensitive. Their co-existence is threatened when OTTO announces his decision to leave. “I’ve decided I’m going to be Chinese,” he says. “The future’s in the East, and I want to be in on it.” He denies the existence of his brother, instead embracing his own reflection, unleashing an identity crisis in otto that destabilizes his relationship with girlfriend Maureen (Charlotte Parry).

Albee charts the clumsy attempts of the mother, Dr., otto and Maureen to run interference with OTTO’s plan, but the latter’s control never falters, right up to orchestrating the false promise of a happy ending — announced with great fanfare and a dollop of kitschy theatrical artifice. When that possibility falls apart, the blame falls to Mom, lacing the conclusion with a bitterness not backed by emotional heft.

Growth and evolution are central to most of Albee’s work and the focus of that process here clearly is Otto, who may be one person, or two, projections of the author or just shards of the mother’s addled mind. “Double your pleasure; double your fun,” she muses. “Double your sorrow; double your despair.” Whatever the interpretation, the play’s insights into feeling incomplete, into shaping our personalities or being shaped, and into the disconnect from families and cultures, remain too impenetrable to inspire much serious reflection.

Mann has assembled a first-rate cast with a firm grasp of the precision required to do right by Albee’s sculptural use of language. And costumer Jennifer von Mayrhauser and makeup designer Louie Zakarian help sell the convincing illusion that Esper and Donnell are cut from the same DNA. But the largely unknowable characters onstage are hard to like, as is the play that assembles them.

Me, Myself & I

Berlind Theater, Princeton, N.J.; 360 seats; $49 top

Production

A McCarter Theater Center presentation of a play in two acts by Edward Albee. Directed by Emily Mann.

Creative

. Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Darron L. West; makeup, Louie Zakarian; production stage managers, Cheryl Mintz, Alison Cote. Opened, reviewed Jan. 25, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

OTTO - Michael Esper Mother - Tyne Daly Dr. - Brian Murray otto - Colin Donnell Maureen - Charlotte Parry The Man - Stephen Payne
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