Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 5
 
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
MATERNAL INSTINCTS: “What did I do!? What did I do!?” Mother (Tyne Daly) reflects on her identical twin sons named OTTO and otto, as her longtime partner “Dr.” (Brian Murray) looks on, in Edward Albee’s new play “Me, Myself & I,” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17.

Realism? Absurdity? Dark Comedy Defies Labels; McCarter Presents Engaging World Premiere of Albee’s New Play

Donald Gilpin

Notoriously elusive in discussing what his plays are all about, Edward Albee, in his program notes, explains that “a play is fully described (or explained) by the experience of seeing it.” He urges his audiences to “pretend you’re at the first play you’ve ever seen — have that experience — and I think ‘what the play is about’ will reveal itself quite readily.”

Mr. Albee, approaching his eightieth birthday (March 12) with four major New York area productions of his plays appearing this season, makes things difficult for the critic, whose job presumably is to explain what these plays are all about. But what makes Albee’s plays, including his world premiere Me, Myself & I, currently at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, worth seeing and worth reviving as provocative masterpieces of the American theater, is precisely the fact that they defy labels, that they cannot be pigeonholed or explained.

The experience of watching Me, Myself & I, in a sterling production directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann and starring the wildly engaging Tyne Daly (Tony Award for Gypsy and four Emmy Awards for Cagney & Lacey) and the redoubtable Albee veteran Brian Murray (three Tony nominations for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Little Foxes and The Crucible), is consistently entertaining, sometimes surprising, often at least mildly disturbing, and moving.

Albee aficionados seem to be more numerous than ever in these late stages of a career that has seen three Pulitzer Prizes and numerous Tony Awards, some rapid rises and precipitous descents over the past half century since The Zoo Story (1959) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and these devotees will find familiar subject matter, style and tone, but they will also enjoy the maestro’s explorations of new terrain.

Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself & I” will play through February 17 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and further information.

Despite Mr. Albee’s plea that you should see, hear and experience for yourself, rather than be told, what this play is about, here goes: Me, Myself &I is about two 28year-old identical male twins, OTTO (Michael Esper) and otto (Colin Donnell), and their mother (Ms. Daly). Dr. (Mr. Murray), who moved in when the father left — “the glory was too much” upon seeing the twins’ birth — and Maureen (Charlotte Parry), otto’s girl friend, who undergoes one of the most harrowing meet-the-family scenes ever seen on stage, both provide valuable, at times eccentric, counterbalance and perspective to the intensity of the mother-sons-brothers’ struggles.

The striking, unrealistic setting, designed by Thomas Lynch with lighting by Kenneth Posner consists of one large bed, in which Mother and Dr. are ensconced, in the first act, and two minimal beds right and left for OTTO and otto’s bedrooms in act two, with vast empty space surrounding. The surrealistic locale accords neatly with the abstract, absurdist nature of the dialogue and action, as the characters play witty word games with clichés and repetitions, communicate in invented languages, and engage the audience directly in a celebration of their self-conscious theatricality.

Mr. Albee, with The Zoo Story, The Sandbox (1960) and The American Dream (1961), was a leader of the Theatre of the Absurd movement in America, and, in Me, Myself & I, Albee fans will find echoes, in language as well as content, of these plays, as well as the more recent The Play About the Baby (1998). Questions of identity, truth and illusion, shaping one’s self in the context of one’s family, a quest for love, and using language to shape or misshape reality are central to the experience.

Mr. Albee’s distinguished forebears range all the way from Sophocles, whose Oedipus is as obsessed as the two Ottos in his search to know who he is, to Eugene Ionesco with his absurd language games sometimes verging on cruelty, and Samuel Beckett with his absurdist existentialists in Waiting for Godot and the indomitable Winnie, buried in her mound of earth in Happy Days.

Amidst the travails of Mother, who is still awaiting the return of her long-lost husband, as she struggles to love or even identify her two sons and bickers with the much-abused Dr., Me, Myself & I turns its focus on OTTO’s decision early in the first act to deny the existence of his brother and move to China.

This decision poses for Mother, otto and the audience a number of questions — about identical twins, about identity in general, and about the nature of existence. “Is this a metaphor, this brother thing?” asks Dr. Do the twins represent two halves of a single individual, unable to exist independently? Are they Cain and Abel, destined to battle until one is destroyed?

But as Mother boldly asserts, “We have enough ambiguity around here,” and perhaps the best way to experience this world of Albee is to enjoy the ride without fussing too scrupulously over the philosophical profundities.

In fact, this production, deftly directed by Ms. Mann, in close collaboration with the author, who attended many rehearsals of this new play while co-teaching a course, “Albee on Albee,” at Princeton University this semester, swings the balance strongly towards the comedic at the expense of the existential drama of the twin brothers. Though the title would indicate that the central plot here belongs to the Ottos, and OTTO takes the focus in addressing the audience in two long second act soliloquies, it is Ms. Daly’s Mother and Mr. Murray’s Dr. who steal the show. They are simply more dynamic, more theatrical, and more interesting than their younger generation counterparts. Mr. Esper’s OTTO, Mr. Donnell’s otto and Ms. Parry’s Maureen are all adequate in their characterizations, but they pale alongside Ms. Daly and Mr. Murray’s charisma, dramatic power, and skill with Mr. Albee’s rich language.

It’s not Mr. Albee’s philosophy of identity and existence nor the twins’ anguished rivalry and struggle for survival that stick in the memory. What resonates most strongly here are Ms. Daly and Mr. Murray and their commanding, eccentric, energetic abundance of life.

As OTTO decides to become Chinese and move to China, Mother explains to otto, “your brother is going through some sort of …l Dislocation is the best word for it.” And perhaps “dislocation” is the best word for the experience of audiences in watching this play. A two-hour visit to Mr. Albee’s peculiar world may “dislocate” you in ways that provide a happy respite from the world of reality and new perspectives that permanently change the way you see your world and your identity. Me, Myself & I is an exciting addition to the Albee canon and a felicitous reminder of why, in the eightieth year of his life and his fiftieth year of playwriting, Edward Albee rightfully stakes his claim to a lofty perch in the pantheon of great American playwrights.

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