September 15, 2010

"Me, Myself & I" Suffers an Identity Crisis

Edward Albee has nothing to prove to me. Or to anyone else.  Now 82, he is America’s greatest living playwright.  Over the past five decades, he’s won three Pulitzers, a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement and the Kennedy Center Honors. His plays Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, and Seascape have wedged themselves firmly into the literary canon and the American cultural psyche. (Click here to read a smart—and entertaining—interview with Albee in the Village Voice) And so it is an occasion when Albee offers a new work, even when that work doesn’t rank with his best, as is the case with his latest Me, Myself & I, which opened this week at Playwrights Horizons.

As soon as the play—and its cast, lead by Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray—was announced, my buddy Bill emailed that we had to get tickets right away.  And so we did. I’m a late blooming but devoted Albee fan. Like everyone else who wanted to think of herself as hip, I saw the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but I was intimidated by Albee, not sure I was smart enough to really “get” him. Lincoln Center’s acclaimed 1996 revival of A Delicate Balance changed my mind a little.  But it was The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, one of the most moving theater experiences of my life, that turned me into a devotee. 

The thing, I discovered, about Albee is that tucked inside his plays’ absurdist antics and intellectual word play, are vulnerable people whose inability to connect with one another is so frighteningly real and familiar that they tear at your heart. But in Me, Myself & I, alas, the characters barely touch it. 

The plot tracks the events that unfold when one identical twin declares that his baffled sibling no longer exists. The standard Albee tropes about identity, monster mothers and phantom children are all there.  But watching the play is like listening to a cover band crank out songs from a favorite album—you can recognize the tunes but there’s not enough oomph—or heart—in them. My mind wandered. Too much, it seems. At intermission, Bill told me I’d nodded off.

I can’t blame the cast for that. Everyone tries his or her best.  Ashley tamps down her sometimes annoying grande-dame tics and even seems to raise her distinctively husky voice an octave to portray the mother who is so unfit for parenthood that she gives her sons the same name (OTTO and otto) and then can’t tell them apart:  “one of you is enough,” she laments. (Click here to read Ashley’s smart and also entertaining thoughts about the play.)

Murray keeps his trademark eye rolls but they work for his character of the mother’s subservient paramour.  In a couple of scenes he and Ashley struck me as a hetero version of Waiting for Godot’s Pozzo and Lucky. 

Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir are fine as the Ottos and the clever costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and lighting by Kenneth Posner make them look very twin-like. But the play ends abruptly and the audience at the performance Bill and I attended didn’t seem to know what to make of the whole thing. I felt deflated too. But Bill felt differently.  And I think rightly. So I’ll let him have the last word here.  “It’s a new play by Albee,” he said as we walked out.  “And just that makes it worth seeing.” 

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