Albee’s latest asks: OTTO or otto?


Palindromes, jokes and slogans populate twin-centric plot


Dear Edward Albee, I wrote, in a welcoming and chastising open letter in the May/June 1961 issue of Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review. I was welcoming this socko, razor-sharp new talent that had burst upon us Off-Broadway with “The Zoo Story” and “The American Dream” — but chastising with no less vigor this brash new entrant’s sole detectable commitment (which, as I saw it, might be summed up as digging around Ionesco- style in the Genet-like, Celine-like garbage dump of anti-societal disgust). 

Well, that was 49 years ago, before “Virginia Woolf,” before “Three Tall Women” (to my mind, his best), before three Pulitzer Prizes, three Tony Awards and I don’t know how many Obie Awards — not to mention all the other Albee plays, among them “Me, Myself & I” (or “Me, Myself and I”?). 

Those are also 49 years of Edward Albee’s unfailing generosity and good will toward one and all — hundreds of fellow playwrights or aspiring playwrights, thousands of drama students, countless other individuals (including, for one, yours truly). Everybody, that is, except people of bad will or basic phoniness, notably among them, not so long ago, somebody named George W. Bush. 

In that 1961 Evergreen Review piece, I wisecracked about Vogue magazine’s photographic coverage of young arriviste Albee’s “elegantly casual sweatered shoulders.” Now, at the Pier 72 Coffee House on the Upper West Side, trim, spunky, white-mustached, Edward Albee — in shorts, sneaks, knock-about blue polo shirt — sat and ordered an English muffin and waited for questions. 

First question: Edward, is it “and” or ampersand? 

Draws a blank. 

You know, Edward. Is if “Me, Myself and I” or “Me, Myself & I”? 

“Oh!” Thinks, thinks. Finally: “I like the ampersand. I believe we do it that way in the ads. We should.” 

Ampersand or no ampersand, this is, on the surface, a Shakespeare-type mistaken identity comedy about a pair of young male identical twins (actors Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir). Their wacko, overbearing (capital M) Mother (Elizabeth Ashley), whose husband long ago flew the coop; a no less wacko if verbally punctilious doctor (or “Dr.”) who’s been sharing the Mother’s bed ever since then; and a nice girl named Maureen (Natalia Payne; script description: “…pretty, etc.”) who’s in love with the most dominant of the twins but can’t tell one from the other, in or out of bed. 

Neither can anyone else. At the natal coming-out party, so to speak, of Mother’s two baby boys, she’d named them OTTO and otto — and now OTTO, the big bad No.1, wants to do away entirely with his lower-case sibling. 

OTTO also announces that he’s taking himself off, for keeps, to China, land of the future — where he’ll start a new life and a new persona among what Mother graciously calls “the slants.” She also maintains that he’ll have to get his penis shortened. Oy, mama! 

The Dr. makes much of Mother’s nomenclature resort to palindromes. But that isn’t how OTTO (and otto) got into this play. 

“Well, I didn’t know it [OTTO] was a palindrome until I’d done it. Nobody goes around saying: ‘I need a palindrome,’” Albee says dryly. Indeed, most everything Edward Albee says or might say — “The sun is out”…I’ll have a coffee”…”Broadway’s now all movie stars who can’t act” — is said dryly. 

“Me, Myself & I” is chock full of jokes, slogans (“Double your pleasure, double your fun”), outworn turns of speech, and time-honored clichés like “time-honored” and “chock full.” 

A running exegesis of such verbiage is provided by the pettifogging Dr. (wonderful Brian Murray), who never lets a “speak of the devil” or “two birds with one stone” or dozens of other such old faithfuls go by without comment. As they pile up, this gets to be quite funny. 

You can just see Edward Albee roaring — well, chuckling — with laughter as, in the writing. 

Edward himself, here in the Pier 72 Coffee Shop, now says, “I’ll tell you something. Writing this play was more pure joy than any other. It was work, yes, but I had a wonderful time working on it. 

“You know,” he says, “I’m the good audience of my plays. I hear them and see them as I’m writing them. With this one, I was laughing and having a good time.” 

A good time, but… 

One of Albee’s precepts in his courses at the University of Houston is, I’m told, that every new playwright starts with the Kill Your Parents drama or series of dramas. 

That’s certainly true of Edward himself, from all the way back with “The American Dream” (1961) on the heels of “The Zoo Story.” Then, of course, there was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962) — with its wanted/unwanted invisible baby, and, much later, with more clarity and therefore more force, “Three Tall Women” (1994), along with such other works betwixt and between (cliché!) as the starkly titled “The Play About the Baby” (2000). 

And now this. 

Throughout “Me, Myself and I” there are overtones and undertones of the dominating, devouring mothers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Chekhov’s Konstantin (“The Sea Gull”), and above all the mama of that hemmed-in movie-going Tom in “The Glass Menagerie” — who is, of course, Tennessee Williams himself. 

Albee has on occasion talked candidly about his early life as an adopted child of the Albees of Larchmont, New York. But now, with “Me. Myself & I” under his belt (cliché!), he seemed to loosen up as rarely before. 

The Albee family, he said, “had made their money” from the chain of 300 Keith Albee vaudeville theaters across America. “Then Kennedy’s father [Joseph P. Kennedy] bought them out and converted the whole thing to RKO [Radio Keith Orpheum] movie theaters. But when I was a child, the house was still full of great old visiting entertainers like Ed Wynn and Victor Moore.” 

We don’t know much about the Mr. Albee who, with his wife Frances, adopted the little boy who’d been born March 12, 1928, in Washington, D.C., but we know quite a good bit about that Mrs. Albee. Edward, as noted, has been killing her off for many years now. Well, not precisely that, but doing her in one way or another. 

“The difference,” he says, “between her and this character [in “Me, Myself & I”] is that she [Frances Albee] had no sense of humor at all, whereas this character is funny — dangerously funny, but funny.” 

He also has long believed, but could never prove, that his adoptive mother deliberately destroyed his first attempt at playwriting, back there in his early teens. At 18, having flunked out of school, he left home for good. 

With parental outrage: “ ‘Never darken our doors again.’” Pause. “It wasn’t enough to get thrown out of college, but to be a writer also….

“I always knew I was an orphan, When I was 5 or 6 I probably thought I had a twin brother somewhere.” 

Did the twin brother have a name? 

“No. I wasn’t writing plays then,” he announces straight faced. Then: “You know, there were identical twins in ‘The American Dream.’” Then: “I guess this is all part of the process of Where Are We, Who Am I. The nature of identity, and so forth.” 

Astonishing note: “When we were casting this” — for its tryout at Princeton’s McCarter Theater in 2008 — “we saw 56 pairs of identical twin actors.” But the two actors finally chosen are not related to one another. 

I have to tell you, Edward, said I, there’s a certain scattering of unnecessary repetition in this play as written. 

Albee virtually twinkled as he riposted: “You should have been at last night’s dress rehearsal. I took out four and a half pages. The important thing is. Don’t stop the forward action of the play. If it stops the forward action, I ruthlessly cut.” In an actor’s voice: “Oh, you can’t cut that, Edward. It’s my favorite line.” 

In his own voice, one word: “Tough!” 

As good a word as any for Little Orphan Albee.