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Good twin, bad twin wears thin in Albee play

Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray perform in a

Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray perform in a scene from Edward Albee's "Me, Myself & I" at the Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. Credit: JOAN MARCUS

Late-youth identity crises don't come more gene-splitting than the one that drives "Me, Myself & I," Edward Albee's playful, slight and surprisingly tiresome domestic vaudeville about twins named OTTO and otto, and the mother, named Mother, who, even after 28 years, cannot tell them apart.

Stylistically, the comedy, which had its premiere at Princeton's McCarter Theatre two years ago as part of the master playwright's 80th birthday season, is a throwback to his breakthrough absurdist American dissections of the early '60s. But the new piece feels less driven to explode family assumptions than to toy with family platitudes through word games repeated as if on tape loops of grammatical and, less often, emotional terrorism.

Our guide, at least in the pre-curtain intro and epilogue, is OTTO (Zachary Booth), who confides that he intends to get rid of his weaker identical twin and disengage from "this whole mess" of a family. As it turns out, he is not exaggerating. Ever since the twins' father fled at their birth, the blowsy gargoyle called Mother (a bulldozing over-animated Elizabeth Ashley) has been in a fluffy raked bed with her "crazy doctor," a man in a business suit called Dr. (played by Brian Murray, bless him, with the dry, elegant haplessness of a Beckett character).

Mother can only identify OTTO as the one who doesn't love her. OTTO has traded up to a new (unseen) brother, and also has decided to be Chinese because "the future's in the East." He ignores otto (Preston Sadleir), also identified as the "soft" otto, who understandably begins to doubt his own existence. Even otto's girlfriend (Natalia Payne) cannot tell them apart in bed.

The McCarter's Emily Mann, who directed a tough and exquisite revival of Albee's "All Over" in 2002, lets kooky characters and linguistic cuteness overwhelm the brutality inherent in acknowledging our multiplicity of identities. But the set, by Thomas Lynch, neatly combines a baby-blue infantilism with a stark sense of nowhere, with delicate golden threads to delineate Albee's self-referential reality of a theater proscenium.

Booth and Sadleir manage to appear remarkably alike, but they also strike poses that seem little more profound than a bad angel and a good angel perched on a cartoon's shoulders.

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