The first act of Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself & I” is a witty meditation, delivered in the playful patter of an extremely articulate, if dysfunctional family, on the questions of identity that have long absorbed the playwright. For all the verbal dexterity, there’s so much wind in the initial skirmishes between identical twins OTTO and otto in their battle for existential survival that we keep waiting for the “real” play to begin. But when the hot air finally blows off in Act Two, Albee fails to come through with the imaginative coup de theatre to give purpose to his cosmic joke.
Helmer Emily Mann, who originally directed this commissioned work for the McCarter Theater Center, has taken care to position the play within that light, bright, frighteningly empty interior landscape where Albee’s bleak absurdist farces seem to thrive. Thomas Lynch has designed a cold and lonesome nowhere-space, loftily paneled to create distance and lighted with harsh brilliance by Kenneth Posner, to create a cruelly exposed environment without a single hiding place.
Call it home — or just call it hell. OTTO, the ruthlessly self-serving twin played by Zachary Booth, is determined to escape this place. After trying in vain to locate the father who deserted his family 28 years ago, immediately after viewing his newborn twins, OTTO has decided to leave home and become Chinese. “The future’s in the East,” this willful youth declares, “and I want to be in on it.”
But in the event that his elusive father might yet return — “rich as Croesus, sacks of emeralds, panthers in tow” — OTTO might linger for a while. But only if he can do away with otto, the inoffensive but nonetheless annoying twin brother played by Preston Sadleir. Or at least convince his distracted mother that otto doesn’t actually exist.
In Elizabeth Ashley’s flamboyantly blowsy perf (visually validated by Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s colorful ragbag costumes), Mother is amusingly easy to persuade that one of her sons is a figment of her imagination. Although a proper monster in her utter lack of maternal feeling, Ashley is marvelously indifferent to her own indifference. In fact, she can’t even tell the twins apart. (If, indeed, either of them actually exists.)
“Are you the one who loves me?” she keeps asking them — a query that elicits OTTO’s cruel taunt: “One of us loves you?”
OTTO almost gives the game away when he slyly suggests: “It must be metaphorical.”
No doubt it is, this coy ruminating on which twin is real, or whether these living palindromes are two faces of the same coin, or even if they exist at all. Albee has covered this ground before, most notably in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “The Play About the Baby.” But the brittle banter doesn’t conceal the underlying identity anxiety that Albee has said plagued him as the adopted child of emotionally detached parents.
Dithering about what’s real, what’s fantasy, and the inadequacy of language to define the difference is the sort of absurdist game they play very well in this family. Although Ashley’s habitually baffled Mother sometimes seems more stupefied than intellectually engaged by the verbal gamesmanship, Brian Murray, as her live-in consort and shrink, a nonentity known only as Dr., makes a meal out of Albee’s wordplay.
Head cocked, mouth agape, eyes firmly fixed on “the middle distance” (one of those nebulous concepts that earns a genuine giggle), this supremely witty farceur seems to be mulling over every absurd idea, every slippery idiom in the confounded English language that Albee throws at him.
Were language all, “Me, Myself & I” might fly as late-career comedy from a world-class word-master. But it isn’t; and despite the fleeting moments of silly pleasure it delivers, the play feels more like a clever party game than a finished work of theater art from a great playwright.