Tyne Daly and Brian Murray in Me, Myself & I
(T. Charles Erickson)
Tyne Daly and Brian Murray in Me, Myself & I
(T. Charles Erickson)
Having shown no fear in tackling everything from infanticide to bestiality in his long career, the soon-to-be-80-year-old Edward Albee has not surprisingly moved on to another taboo -- fratricide -- in Me, Myself & I, which is being given a brilliantly acted world premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, under the accomplished guidance of director Emily Mann.

But those with a distaste for gore, please take note: Not a single drop of blood is spilled in this -- yes -- often hilarious if sometimes mystifying comedy. While Albee touches on any number of philosophical topics over the course of 110 minutes -- most notably. the meaning of identity -- his serious subject matter is buried, perhaps too deeply, beneath a slew of absurdist situations, quasi-vaudevillian banter, and the playwright's typical fondness for wordplay.

The killing at hand is essentially metaphoric, as OTTO (Michael Esper) suddenly tries to disavow the existence of his identical twin brother otto (Colin Donnell) -- and become Chinese. His declarations wreak further havoc on his already uber-dysfunctional family, headed by the seemingly demented Mother (Tyne Daly) and her not entirely sane psychologist-lover of 28 years, Dr. (Brian Murray). The boys' father, by the way, disappeared shortly after their birth; and OTTO, at least, hasn't given up on the hope of his return any more than Lola has stopped searching for Little Sheba.

While the boys' plight takes center stage in the second act, the show's first 50 minutes belong firmly to Daly and Murray, who create a stunning rapport with each other, mostly ensconced in the giant bed that constitutes Thomas Lynch's entire first-act set. Daly's many moments of sheer daffiness and profound confusion are proof of what a first-rate comedienne she can be. But in her fiercest moments of protecting herself or her children (especially evident in the second act), she not only brings to mind her towering performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy, but makes one want to immediately stage a new production of Medea just for her. Albee has often spoken of -- and dramatized -- his disaffection for his real mother, and this knowledge may temper one's possibly benign reaction to this woman, who, among other sins, can never remember which twin is which, even after 28 years.

Murray, no stranger to the Albee canon, relies primarily on his trademark double-takes, eye rolls, and arsenal of vocal inflections to get his well-deserved laughs. Yet, he simultaneously generates some genuine pathos as a man whom, as he points out over and over again, nobody loves -- yet who refuses to change his situation.

Dressed in the same outfits -- gray pullover, black jeans, black shoes (by Jennifer von Mayrhauser) -- their hair styled identically, their complexions equally pale, Donnell and Esper pull off the not-so-easy trick of appearing to be identical twins. Their characters have been drawn perhaps a bit too broadly as good (otto) and evil (OTTO) -- at least until a final plot twist -- but the actors pull off their assignment with great aplomb. (And in Esper's case, a willingness to briefly bare all.) As Maureen, the woman who unwittingly ends up between them, Charlotte Parry gives an impressive and often brave performance. (It can't be easy to call Tyne Daly the worst curse word in the book, even if her character momentarily deserves it.)

Almost all the characters are asked to repeatedly break the fourth wall, even encouraging the occasional response from those in the seats. The device seems a tad overused, as does the playwright's fondness for repetition. Indeed, Me, Myself & I ultimately feels both overextended and underdeveloped -- which is not altogether surprising for a true world premiere. But in the presence of such a superb cast, audiences may not realize the play's flaws until they've gotten home.