Theater Review: Me, Myself & I

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Mirror, Mirror…
Who Am I?

A mother looks at her grown son and fails to recognize him.  A brother looks at his identical twin and denies his existence.  An identical twin looks in the mirror and finds his true brother.  Actors acknowledge the audience that watches them.  In his latest creation, Me, Myself and I, Edward Albee finds a way to amuse and entertain while at the same time confronting deep psychological issues of identity formation.

Before the red curtain rises, a young man dressed in black pants and grey shirt comes on stage to set up the action, revealing directly to the audience his intention to stir up family matters so he can extricate himself from them.  Identifying himself as OTTO, he pins his hopes on getting rid of his identical twin, who soon joins him on stage in clothing reflecting his own, but fails to get OTTO to acknowledge him.

The curtain goes up to reveal a woman (Mother) in a nightdress, sitting up in bed painting her toe nails.  Another person remains hidden under the cover but a bowler hat on the headboard suggests the presence of a man.  Soon enough, the man–Mother’s doctor (Dr)–emerges, fully dressed in business attire.

When OTTO joins them, Mother greets him with, “Who are you?  Which one are you?”  She can only identify his brother because he’s the one who loves her.  Dr has no trouble telling the twins apart because, he explains, neither of them love him.  In fact, both twins resent him for taking their father’s place soon after he disappeared.  When OTTO complains, ‘You never tell me who I am,” Mother continues to insist, “I don’t know who you are.”

OTTO possesses no small amount of rage toward his mother and the interloper Dr, though camouflaged by his remarkably subdued tone, and entertains the fantasy that his father will come back some day “if only to apologize for sticking me with you.”

Eventually OTTO announces that he has decided to become Chinese.  He’s tired of being occidental and anyway the future lies in the East.  When Mother asks whether his brother is going with him, OTTO says yes, but clarifies it’s a new brother–the old one no longer exists–and exits, leaving Mother and Dr to digest what just happened.

Mother reminisces about the time 28 years before when she learned she would be having identical twins and how her husband abandoned her following his visit to the delivery room.  The first time she held the newborn boys, for that single moment she recognized them.  In this disjointed conversation with Dr, Mother defends how she named one OTTO (loud) and the other otto (soft).  Dr, always frustrated with Mother’s absurdities, admonishes her for sowing similar chaos from the stage: “…you’re confusing them, and a confused audience is not an attentive one, I read somewhere.”

The profound impact on OTTO of being raised by a narcissistic mother who refuses to see him because he won’t lavish her with adoration becomes poignantly apparent later in the play when he explains his new twin.  Always before when he had looked in the mirror he had been afraid to touch himself, fearing he didn’t exist and neither did the image reflected back to him.  His resolution of that unbearable state creates a split between himself and what he sees when he decides that even though it looks exactly like him, it’s actually his twin.

The question of identity must resonate with this playwright.  Albee was born in 1928 and, as an infant, was adopted by a wealthy couple who “didn’t like children.”  He admitted in a recent Playbill interview, that he “didn’t get along very well with [them].”  Though his adopted parents provided him with a top-notch education and other physical comforts, “they were bigots” and at 18, Albee left because they disapproved of his homosexuality.  He has never sought out his birth parents–back then no one could get access to adoption records–and now claims it “troubled [him] only for health reasons.”

The play resonates with elements of Albee’s own experience of knowing nothing about his origins and having adopted parents ill equipped to provide the nurturing he needed to begin to fill that void.  Because he differed so markedly from them, they also failed as models, leaving Albee to invent himself.  As for twins, he had this to say about them in the Playbill interview:  “I think I decided I was probably an identical twin myself.  Being an orphan, you need all the identity you can get.  I never knew whether I had any brothers or sisters so I invent them in my plays.”

The parents he invents suggest comparison with his history as well.  In Me, Myself and I, OTTO’s mother refuses to acknowledge her son’s unique identity, and his father, who abandons him, gets replaced by an imposter.  Children born with temperaments radically different from their parents’ often believe they must have been adopted and fantasize about their real parents showing up to retrieve them.  Albee stages just such a fantasy late in the play, though in the end it fails to achieve the hoped for happy ending.

The brilliance of this play lies in its sly use of language to disguise the pain OTTO must feel.  Through exaggerated characters, humorous exchanges and bizarre situations, Albee leaves the audience mildly dazed.  Perhaps the method in the madness that sows confusion creates just enough distance from the reality of the content to maintain the audience’s attention.  When the fog lifts, more will be revealed.

Me, Myself and I
Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY10036
(212) 564-1235