Stage Door: Me, Myself & I, Penny Penniworth

09/12/2010 09:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Identity is a tricky issue -- especially when an eccentric mother names her twins Otto -- then bemoans the fact she can't tell them apart. "Identical twins, identical names!" she trumpets, with the awful logic of the mad. To differentiate the two, if only tangentially, she has dubbed one OTTO and the other otto. If it all sounds crazy, it is. And in Edward Albee's absurdist comedy Me, Myself & I,, now at Playwrights Horizons, the parameters of sanity get pushed to the brink.

Albee, best known for his masterworks, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, is back in the world of existential wackiness. He first explored this terrain in The Sandbox, his late '50s play that skillfully challenged theatrical tradition. Now, in his eighth decade, he has returned to his literary roots.

Noted for his wordplay and black comedy style, Albee has crafted a clever but flawed play in Me, Myself & I, though it's graced with wonderfully fierce performances by two theatrical vets. Elizabeth Ashley shines as the over-the-top Mother, while Brian Murray is terrific as her bemused longtime lover, a doctor who, unlike his exacerbating mate, can tell the boys apart. They command the stage effortlessly; their sometimes-vaudevillian interplay is genuinely funny.

The twins' palindrome name undergoes all sorts of parsing, raising the philosophical question of how we define the self. Determined to regain his identity, the evil OTTO (Zachary Booth), distinct from the good otto (Preston Sadleir) hits on a scheme worthy of his dysfunctional family: He renounces his brother's existence, and announces he intends to become Chinese.

Me, Myself & I is a well-directed effort, thanks to Emily Mann, who is comfortable with Albee's linguistic games, but the narrative, which traffics in the dangers of delusions, goes off-kilter. Plus, the repetitions of Otto vs. otto drag on. There are uniformly good performances all round, including from Maureen, (Natalia Payne), otto's girlfriend, yet one leaves the theater with an odd sensation: feeling both entertained and disappointed.

No such contradictions exist with Penny Penniworth, a superb send-up of Charles Dickens at Tada! The extraordinarily talented four-person Emerging Arts Theater ensemble lampoons Dickens' greatest works -- Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist -- with razor-sharp comic timing. The props and set are minimal, but the production is priceless.

Playwright Chris Weikel knows his stuff, creating parodies of Dickensian stock characters, such as Miss Havasnort, Melodious Diggs and Rupert Strife, with unabashed glee. His wild narrative is both reminiscent of Dickens and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Young Penny is left destitute when her father loses his fortune. Forced to navigate 19th-century London, she meets a host of outrageous characters, expertly rendered by Jamie Heinlein (who also plays Penny), Christopher Borg, Jason O'Connell and Ellen Reilly.

Director Mark Finley has assembled a first-rate cast, capable of changing identities and accents in a flash. All make Penny Penniworth, which runs through Oct. 3, theatrical magic.