The identical twins at the center of Edward Albee’s newest play, Me, Myself & I (Playwrights Horizons), are named Otto, which, as another character points out, is a palindrome, a word spelled the same way backwards or forwards. Otto is also the name of a character in Design for Living, a work by Noël Coward, whom Albee is known to admire. Coward’s Otto is involved in a triangular relationship: Two such relationships exist in Albee’s play, though neither bears much resemblance to the jovial threesome in Coward’s comedy.
Which doesn’t mean that Albee didn’t have Coward in mind while writing; with him, you never know: He is a great tease, especially when working in the absurdist-comic mode of Me, Myself & I. For all we can guess, he might have been thinking of the “concentrated otto” (i.e., attar), which a lovestruck young girl is said to breathe in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. Me, Myself & I also contains a lovestruck young girl, who adores one of the play’s twins, but has the misfortune of not being able to tell him from his brother. That can lead to unpleasant complications, even in a world as aggressively non-realistic as the one Albee puts onstage.
Albee’s twin Ottos do have different names, in a way: One’s is spelled in all caps, the other’s in all lowercase. The latter, unsurprisingly, is the quieter “good” twin (Preston Sadleir), who loves his mother, or at least says he does. To show what a good boy he is, he even asserts that his louder, wickeder, all-caps brother (Zachary Booth) loves her “in his own way.” The mother we’re speaking of (Elizabeth Ashley) doesn’t make loving easy. Having been deserted by her spouse the day after the twins were born, she’s been living with her “crazy doctor” (Brian Murray) for the boys’ entire 28 years. (They sleep together, he fully clothed, with his hat within easy reach.) Tyrannical, obstinate, and arbitrary in the tradition of Albee matrons, this mother is nonstop high-maintenance. You can see why the twins have apparently chosen to live elsewhere, lowercase otto with his girlfriend, Maureen (Natalia Payne). But you can’t be sure of that, either, since the set for what’s apparently the young couple’s bedroom contains—what else?—twin beds.
All-caps OTTO is, distinctly, the evil twin in this absurd melodrama: He menaces his mother with the imminent return of her long-lost husband, accompanied by black panthers (“the four-legged kind”) and emeralds. He insists that he’s going to become Chinese, since the future lies in the East. Most ominously for the play’s purposes, he insists that lowercase otto no longer exists—though he has, he says, discovered in the mirror a new twin, all-italics Otto. What with Mother’s hostility to Maureen, lowercase otto’s panic over his sibling’s attitude, and all-caps OTTO’s envy of his brother’s sexual happiness, the accelerating Otto-eroticism inevitably leads to a bedlamite climax, thoroughly disquieting for all concerned.
In its themes and its exaggerated theatricality, Me, Myself & I harks back to Albee’s earliest works: Compare The American Dream, with its domineering Mommy and its young hunk who grieves for his missing twin. Yet the new script’s verbal playfulness, with its persnickety habit of querying every idiomatic expression, seems to stem from the later period of All Over and Seascape, pursuing a style of inflated but readily self-punctured verbal grandeur, with results that here divide equally between the ponderous and the startlingly hilarious. The latter achieve a peak in a preposterous picnic scene, where Mother and Maureen sling insults at each other across a picnic hamper filled with comedy-sketch inedibles.
Underneath both the ferocious comic excess and the puckish, verbal nitpickery lies something serious that Albee appears to be struggling, almost against his will, to dramatize, some deep question of parents and love and human identity. It’s surely no coincidence that this brittle, raucous, cartoony play puts into its protagonist’s mouth, at a key point, a quote from one of the most movingly earnest works of postwar American literature, James Agee’s prose poem, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” most familiar in its gorgeous, much-recorded setting for soprano and orchestra by Samuel Barber. The quoted lines—which all-caps OTTO, with typical Albee sleight-of-hand, cites accurately but dismisses as “paraphrase”—describe the beginning of a child’s groping toward personal identity, the lament that the adults around him “will not, not now, not ever . . . tell me who I am.” Comically, Albee has reversed the situation: In his play, the son must explain his identity to his mother. Albee, one remembers, was an adopted child. Some hurts never go away.
Emily Mann’s production, clean and bare, has the slightly formal coldness one associates, rather regretfully, with Albee’s preferred acting style: rhythmically rigid, with minimal physical contact or emotional “spill.” Some actors and directors can flourish in this mode; Mann’s cast has rather a struggle with it. Both Ashley and Murray, at their best moments outrageously funny in a high-vaudeville style, seem locked into repeating their effects; Payne’s Maureen sounds one shrill note throughout; Sadleir downplays lowercase otto into near-nonexistence. Only Booth’s all-caps OTTO, whose role stands outside the action, seems to have found some creative leeway. A little less deference to Albee’s stature might have made this a more exciting occasion.
Actor Marc Wolf shared a 2000 Obie Award with his director, Joe Mantello, for Another American: Asking and Telling, a solo piece in which Wolf portrayed, stunningly, a kaleidoscope of figures (text drawn from actual interviews) with every imaginable attitude toward the issue of gays in the military. With immaculate timing, just as the issue crests in federal court, he’s now back, playing Sunday and Monday nights at DR2 Theatre, and the phrase “better than ever” applies. Whether you go in for the politics or the acting, you’re likely to come away feeling enriched on both levels by the power of Wolf’s performance and the scrupulous passion with which he articulates each detail.