Edward Albee's Me, Myself & I begins with a line that pretty much indicates where this absurd little play is going.
"I want to make things even more complicated than they are around here," a young man says to the audience, standing in front of the curtain, which has not yet risen.
You have to hand it to him, though: mission accomplished. By the end of this impishly inventive play, an already fragile, confused little family has been utterly upended. And you can almost hear the playwright cackling with delight.
Though Albee is in his 80s, Me, Myself & I — starring Elizabeth Ashley and veteran Albee interpreter Brian Murray as her lover — has a youthful, half-baked quality. At least compared to his searing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? his latest work is positively daffy, with comedic lines that evaporate without necessarily moving the plot forward.
The six-person play at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons centers on a pair of identical 28-year-old twins, one of whom — the mischiefmaker we meet at the beginning — marches into his mother's bedroom to announce two bizarre things. One, he wants to become Chinese. And two, he has decided that his twin brother no longer exists.
Naturally, this news befuddles his mother (Ashley), who still has a hard time distinguishing between her sons and yet has not made life easy for herself by bestowing on them the same name: Otto. To get around this, the "good" twin (Preston Sadleir) is known by the lowercase "otto" and his "evil" sibling (Zachary Booth) goes by the uppercase "OTTO."
How his family handles OTTO's news basically shapes the thin plot, which has aspirations to be an examination of identity and parenthood but packs no wallop and seems artificially extended into a full-length play. The acting is good, but the performers are often working with a script that fails to connect emotionally.
This is Albee's 30th play and his signature touches are evident: actors stepping out of scenes to address the audience (at one point the mother abruptly abandons the stage, explaining "I've got to pee"); the love of American idioms ("ta-ta," "straight and narrow," "speak of the devil"); casual bigotry; and, of course, mommy issues. It's not even the first time the playwright has touched on identical twins, having done so in his 1960 one-act play The American Dream. But it's the first time the Doublemint gum jingle has been so hysterically mangled.
Me, Myself & I made its world debut in 2008 at the McCarter Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Princeton, N.J., and Thomas Lynch's set designs have also made the trip, combining Albee's love of stark spareness with Lynch's use of thin wires to make the stage resemble a sterile yet fragile space.
Director Emily Mann, who has faithfully followed Albee's instructions even when they veer into self-indulgence, and Murray, who clearly relishes his out-of-left-field lines, are also reprising their parts.
Ashley is superb, playing the role with equal parts befuddlement, stubbornness and sentimentality, all tinged with a whiskey-aged voice, an air of flooziness and disheveled hair.
The two Ottos manage a neat double trick — appearing and moving like identicals yet remaining utterly different in temperament, no easy feat for a pair of actors who wear the same green polos, black pants, boots and haircuts.
You'll be seeing double and likely confused when it's all over. But there's no disguising Albee's singular vision.