Identity is very likely the theme at the heart of Edward Albee’s muddled new play, which might fairly be described as absurdist comedy that falls terribly flat. If Albee is in a mood to be playful, the pleasure is all his. A woman known as Mother (Elizabeth Ashley), who has identical twins, cannot tell her grown children apart. It’s partly her own fault, as we learn from her companion, Dr. (Brian Murray). At birth she named one twin OTTO and the other otto. Now OTTO, resentful that their father left and also that Dr. has been Mother’s companion for 28 years, wants to do away with his brother. He doesn’t exactly want to kill otto, but just ignore him into non-existence.
But it’s more than the identical names for the identical twins that confuses Mother. (To be fair, she maintains that the names are not identical. There are those capital letters vs. lowercase, and then OTTO, she says, should be read from left to right; otto, however, reads from right to left.) Mother knows that one twin loves her and one doesn’t, but she does not know which is which. “Isn’t that sad?” she says. “I can’t tell them apart, either one of them. I’ve never been able to tell them apart—except maybe that moment when I first saw them.” Perhaps Albee means to comment on the fact that no parents can ever really know their children, but it’s not clear.
Meanwhile, OTTO impulsively wants to become Chinese. “I’m not happy being—what do they call it?—occidental?” he declares. “The future is in the East.” He also has designs on his brother’s girlfriend, Maureen, whose Irish and Cherokee heritage comes in for some borderline racist razzing from Mother.
It’s all just as loopy as it sounds, and Emily Mann’s production gets off to a slow start as Mother belabors her confusion over and over. At other times the action does pick up. One scene echoes Beckett: when Mother and Dr. go for a picnic, Dr. wears a bowler, visually connecting him to the tramps in Waiting for Godot,, who also wear bowlers and engage in dilatory banter. But if Albee’s parallel is meant to lend his work some heft, it only points up the shortcomings. Beckett’s tramps are undeniably, painfully human. Even in absurdist comedy, the characters have to be plausibly so, but apart from Natalia Payne’s worried Maureen and Preston Sadleir’s fine, flummoxed otto, they aren’t.
Nonetheless, Albee uses every theatrical and metatheatrical trick in the book to enliven it. The fourth wall is periodically broken, as OTTO narrates his plan and even engages the audience in a question-and-answer at times. He announces that “in Western theatre, there’s the tradition that if you lean against a proscenium just so, you can watch a scene and the people who are in the scene won’t see you.” And he proceeds to do just that. The confident and personable Zachary Booth does a fine job with the interplay, but his claim to be evil is overstated. He’s just a mischievous prankster.
Albee’s fondness for grammatical wordplay pops up in chatter about ways to pronounce “lama” vs. “llama,” the definition of “strait and narrow,” and the meaning of “ta-ta.” (It matters little that probably no one in his right mind misunderstands what “ta-ta” means; the wordplay becomes tiresome all too quickly.) At times the piece feels like a theatrical version of minimalist music. A theme is repeated and repeated and repeated. Then it’s repeated with a slight variation, and that’s repeated and repeated. Et cetera. (The plank walls and floor of the sparsely furnished set by Thomas Lynch are comparably minimal, as is Kenneth Posner’s subtle lighting, and both are much more satisfying.)
Early in the second act there’s an exchange between Dr. and Mother about why they are carrying a picnic hamper. It’s amusing for a bit, but, like too much of this play, it’s theatrical filler. And Albee pointedly uses a hoary deus ex machina, right out of Tartuffe and Threepenny Opera, for his climax, though it’s splendidly staged.
The actors certainly commit to the nonsensical premise wholeheartedly, particularly the redoubtable Ashley as Mother. She spends much of the first scene sitting in bed, swinging from querulous desperation to supercilious hauteur, but all her talent can’t make her character believable or sympathetic. Murray delivers his lines with requisite dryness and a good deal of his patented facial expressions. His glances and grimaces provide many of the choicest moments in the play, but the actors struggle to raise stakes that just aren't there.