Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Emily Mann
416 West 42nd Street
Within seconds of meeting the dual protagonists of Me, Myself & I, you may find yourself dwelling upon the backstage logistics faced by the show’s production team. How, exactly, does one cast a play about identical twins? Perhaps not surprisingly, the producers of this often-entertaining absurdist comedy by Edward Albee did not limit their search to real-life twins, hoping to come across a pair of capable twin thespians within the New York theater community. Instead, Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir, two unrelated but eerily similar-looking young actors, are tasked with playing the sour, squabbling brothers — both named Otto — at the center of the story.
Me, Myself & I, which opens the 40th anniversary season at Playwrights Horizons, owes much of its charm to Booth and Sadleir, who play against each other’s nuanced mimicry with adept precision. Indeed, theatergoers who suffer from even a slight case of the perception disorder prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, may have trouble telling the two actors apart. And yet there is an understated contrast between them that works so well. The more extroverted Otto, played by Booth, has just enough of an edge to convince us he is the elder sibling. Equipped with an appropriately stronger stage presence and even a slightly better build, Booth is simply a more charming actor than his doppelganger. Still, he and Sadleir are a great team, and their easy chemistry, evident from the outset of the play, makes it all the more frustrating when the pieces of Albee’s wobbly story fail to come together in any satisfying way.
The play’s inciting incident takes place early on, when the elder Otto storms into the bedroom of his mother (Elizabeth Ashley) and her longtime psychiatrist (Brian Murray), with whom she has been living since the twins’ father deserted her 28 years earlier. Otto informs the couple that he is leaving for China because “the future is in the East.” He then goes on to insist that, for reasons he refuses to expound upon, his twin brother no longer exits. It’s a silly revelation, of course, but Otto’s conviction is so strong that he soon has the entire family doubting the existence of his more reserved sibling, despite the fact that they can all see and hear him perfectly well.
Like much of Albee’s work, Me, Myself & I hones in on the comic barbarity of domestic dysfunction with characters who seem unable to understand each other — or their own motivations — on even the most basic level. The twins’ overbearing, queen-bee of a mother goes into fits of circular logic, attempting, for instance, to justify her unfathomable decision to give identical names to her identical sons. At the same time, she laments that she herself can’t tell the two boys apart, and her inability to do so has predictably turned the Ottos into whiny bags of alienation and insecurity. Albee, who himself was adopted, is clearly exploring the existential side of identity and duality. However, his use of twin characters to indulge his preoccupation with the self will draw inevitable comparisons to the 2002 film “Adaptation,” in which the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman conjured up a fictionalized version of himself and the twin brother he never had. But where Kaufman did not shy away from exposing the abject humanity of his dual alter egos, Albee seems more concerned with abjectness for its own sake.
The actors in Me, Myself & I are ready and able to take on the material, but it’s not clear what, if anything, we’re supposed to feel for these detached characters. Thanks in large part to the steady hand of director Emily Mann, the play moves at a brisk and graceful clip, and Albee’s script does get us from point A to point B with a few really nice chuckles. But if we accept that a good play, even a comedy, is one that ultimately justifies its existence, then a play about an existential crisis should get no free pass. Mind you, this is not a plea for sentiment, warmth or likable characters — dark comedy typically gets by without any of these elements. But, even as Albee’s twins do a fine job as temperamental bookends in an amusing play, their peripheral journey ultimately reminds us that their story has no real emotional center.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, 2010