It is sad when a playwright capable of such fine things as “The Zoo Story,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Three Tall Women” drops turkeys like “The Man Who Had Three Arms,” “Tiny Alice” and “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” to name only three of his most egregious efforts. Now “Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I” joins that pitiful list, dragging those excellent actors Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray with it.
Was there ever a more solipsistic title than this, in which the author indulges himself fourfold?
“Me, Myself & I” -- which had its premiere at the McCarter Theater of New Jersey in 2008 and now is presented by New York’s Playwrights Horizons -- concerns mistaken identities engendered by identical twins. The well-worn topic dates back to the third century B.C., to Plautus’s lusty “Menaechmi,” which inspired Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and reached its modern apogee with Jean Anouilh’s charming “Ring Around the Moon” (1947). What could Albee add to them?
He wallows in his favorite old tricks: belaboring a thin joke to lengths no self-respecting rubber band would presume; making cruel fun of desperate women; and ceaseless one-upmanship wherein one character humiliates another and someone snidely corrects another’s English, even though Albee himself is highly accident-prone when it comes to grammar.
Here we get Mother (no other name), whose husband, the Man, walked out 28 years ago, when she gave birth to identical twins, whom she named OTTO and otto. Ever since, she has been living with Dr. (not even accorded a full Doctor), her physician. It is a peculiar relationship in which she wears a nightgown to bed and he is fully clad between the sheets.
Almost the entire first act is taken up with Mother trying to figure out which Otto she is being tortured by as he refuses to answer her increasingly frantic questioning. We know that there are two Ottos, one of whom loves Mother and one who doesn’t, but this one, whom even we can easily identify by his sadism, remains a tormenting mystery to his hapless mother. Dr., who knows which one is which by (get this!) being equally disliked by both, is no help to her either.
OTTO (who admits to having a twin but not a brother, whom he claims to be dead) proposes to go to China and turn Chinese. Otto has a girlfriend, the lachrymose and piteous Maureen, mocked as a ”half-breed” who, no less befuddled than Mother, allows herself to be possessed by OTTO.
Their father does finally make an appearance, rising from the floorboards in a chariot drawn by four black panthers and filled with emeralds the size of the Ritz. A third “twin,” the so-called “italic Otto,” is mentioned, though we are mercifully spared his presence.
McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, who commissioned this stillbirth, also directed, and the talented Thomas Lynch has designed the most meager set, presumably not to obtrude on the love fest of the four titular Albees.
Ashley, a gifted but often hyperactive actress, plays the ludicrously costumed and coifed Mother in an extended rant. As Dr., the Olympianly mugging Murray manages to squeeze a few laughs out of his trademark persona as Comic Grouch or Trumped Raisonneur. As the twins, Zachary Booth (with whom we are saturated) and Preston Sadleir (of whom there is too little) succeed in being alike at least in being saddled with equally unrewarding roles. Natalia Payne, as Maureen, must whine, wheedle or weep throughout, and Stephen Payne, as the Man, is scarcely more than a sight gag.
So much for Albee’s comedy of errors: very little comedy and two hours of error.
At Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200 or http://www.ticketcentral.com Rating: (Zero stars)
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)