Who’s Confused by Edward Albee?

memyself1005rsc 1 Who’s Confused by Edward Albee?“You’re confusing them,” the character called simply Dr. says of the audience during the first act of Me, Myself & I, the new Edward Albee play, which opened at Playwrights Horizons Sunday night. “And a confused audience is not an attentive one, I read somewhere.”

“Oh?” replies Mother, with whom Dr. has shared a bed for 28 years. “King Lear is confusing. … And people pay attention to King Lear. Or they try to.”

“They know they’re supposed to,” Dr. says.

Well, yes. And people know they’re also supposed to pay attention to Edward Albee.

The play is a meditation on identity, on self, on familial interdependence and co-dependence and independence. Mr. Albee clearly enjoyed crafting it, filling his script with epigrams and echoes and a recurring obsession with idioms.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor–at 72, Mr. Albee is one of America’s leading dramatists, the author of 30-odd plays, three times the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, twice the winner of the Tony Award for best play.

He can be a deft chronicler of modern American mores; he’s a masterful creator of dialogue; he has a gleeful obsession with language and words. But he’s also an absurdist, and he’s capable of leaving an audience more than a little bit confused.

That’s what happens in Me, Myself & I, an intriguing but confounding play directed by Emily Mann, the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where it had its debut two years ago.

Mother (Elizabeth Ashley, scattered and wild-haired and wonderfully out of it) has twin 28-year-old sons who she cannot tell apart, each named Otto, though one is OTTO and one is otto. “You don’t see the logic of it,” she says to the audience, “identical twins, identical names?” The twins’ father left soon after they were born, and Mother soon took up with Dr. (the sublime Brian Murray, who has a delicious way with Mr. Albee’s intricate wordplay). At the play’s start, uppercase Otto, the loud Otto (Zachary Booth, who nicely renders his implausible character compelling), announces that he has decided two things: that he will become Chinese–”the future’s in the East, and I want to be in on it,” he proclaims–and that his brother no longer exists. This is, needless to say, a cause of concern to the family, not least to lowercase Otto (Preston Sadleir–who really does look just like Mr. Booth–in his Off Broadway debut), who is troubled to hear of his negation.

The play is a meditation on identity, on self, on familial interdependence and co-dependence and independence. Mr. Albee clearly enjoyed crafting it, filling his script with epigrams and echoes and an recurring obsession with idioms.

But while Me, Myself & I occasionally feels inspired, with phrases and dialogue and emotions bumping against each other and layering on top of each other and finally veering off in wild directions, it just as often becomes a impenetrable slog, a series of odd plot developments presenting themselves at a languorous pace.

There’s a reason you’re supposed to pay attention to Mr. Albee: those words. And Me, Myself & I, thanks to them, and to an excellent cast, is a rewarding evening, even if it’s a confusing one. But even so, a surprisingly large minority of the audience at the preview I attended didn’t return after intermission. You couldn’t entirely fault them: A confused audience, it has been said, is not an attentive one.

editorial@observer.com