Opportunities to helm a new Edward Albee play are rare. Early in the 79-year-old playwright's career, director Alan Schneider was entrusted with bringing Albee's complex, sometimes inflammatory works to the stage. Since then, his plays have been guided by such artists as John Gielgud (All Over, 1971), Lawrence Sacharow (Three Tall Women, 1994), and David Esbjornson (The Play About the Baby, 2001). For Albee's newest work, Me, Myself & I, Emily Mann—the award-winning playwright, director, and artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J.—is in charge of one of the most anticipated premieres of the year.
That premiere coincides with what's becoming a banner year for Albee—following the Off-Broadway debut of Peter and Jerry (an expansion of his landmark The Zoo Story) at Second Stage Theatre and preceding major New York revivals of The American Dream and The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane Theatre in March.
Mann's enthusiasm for Albee's new play is unquestionable. "It's so fabulous and it's a unique piece," she says. "It's like everything that Edward's ever written and nothing like Edward's ever written. It's amazing." The play centers on identical twins named Otto, both portrayed by Michael Esper. Tyne Daly plays Mother, and playing a character called Dr. is Albee interpreter extraordinaire Brian Murray. Mann calls the play a comedy, but when asked what it's about, she replies, "About two hours with intermission."
When she describes the first day of rehearsals, however, she reveals something about herself as well as the playwright. Just before the first read-through, Mann asked Albee, "Would you let me say that this is a play that has something to do with twins?" and he agreed. She asked, "Is it also true that you haven't written about twins since your first plays?" and again he agreed. So Mann took out a copy of The American Dream and read aloud a "beautiful speech" by the character Young Man about twins. He describes not only gestating from the same ovum, but the unbearable pain he felt, and continues to feel, as a result of being separated from his brother at a very young age. Mann felt that by looking at Albee's 1961 play, she, the actors, and ultimately the audience could discover the core of Me, Myself & I.
Mann is even more forthcoming when discussing what the new work requires from her and the actors. She says its humor "comes from very deep pain," that Albee is "a master at creating comedy that way," and that the rehearsal process has involved "a lot of the usual deep and psychological work that I do with actors. It has to be utterly real, human, and emotionally true."
Yet Me, Myself & I—whose minimalist aspects recall Albee's 1968 work Box, the entire set of which is an onstage cube—is also a "performance piece," Mann says. "There's also a real sense there are certain characters who are more performance-prone. So he's really sort of playing with both real character work and real questions of what is theatre." She notes the musicality of Albee's work: "He calls his plays 'scores.' What you find in there can be very meticulous." For instance, "an ellipsis is different than a double dash." That means performers must come to the work with "a true metric sense and the ability to use language both musically and viscerally. All of which is classical chops."
To illustrate how such training and experience benefits Albee actors, Mann mentions something Rosemary Harris said about appearing in the McCarter's 2002 revival of All Over, which Mann directed. Harris said, "I couldn't have done it without having done Shakespeare."
Mann's background would seem to ideally suit her for the demands of Albee's work. She has directed Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Pinter and has created unique worlds reflecting real-life events in pioneering documentary-theatre pieces such as Execution of Justice, Having Our Say, Still Life, and Greensboro (A Requiem). She says working on these disparate plays is, on many levels, not all that different from what she did during the rehearsal and preview period for Me, Myself & I.
Documentary theatre, Mann says, means "you're dealing with the words that a real person said, even if I've distilled it as the writer. Actors still have to deal with how that person talks, and they can't ever get away from it. In a way, I work the same whether it's documentary or Chekhov or Albee or Shakespeare. I never make an actor wrong. I make a very safe place and I never let an actor lie. I will always take an actor deeper and deeper and never let him dodge."
For Me, Myself & I—for which Mann's actors must create "an absolutely real sense of being in a room" despite there being only a bed on stage in Act 1 and two beds in Act 2—her process is designed to allow the actors to discover the work's emotional honesty. This includes investigating the play moment by moment, even delving into it "word by word" before rehearsal.
For an artist whose interests span the minimalism of Albee and the richness of Chekhov (she's currently working on an adaptation of The Seagull), what attracts Mann to a project, as writer or director? "It's a gut-level thing, almost like a reflex," she says. "I have a very old, strong unconscious fantasy life. I'm drawn to many different writers, and as a director I'm very free-roaming. I want to live inside their worlds." She believes that writers like Albee, Shakespeare, Nilo Cruz, and Tennessee Williams "love the theatre, and writers ignite in me the things that set up deep emotional charges…. I'm naturally drawn to plays that have an extraordinary resonance for or connection to women. In this particular play, Tyne is playing this extraordinary mother, just an extraordinary creature." Musing on the subject further, she mentions that "Juliet is actually far more interesting a character than Romeo." And here's how Mann describes her changing response to The Seagull: "I used to enter through Nina. Now I'm entering through Arkadina, but I'm realizing that it's really the son's play."
This two-time Tony nominee sees her artistic vision as an ongoing process: "The older I get, the more I realize the characters in these plays are the same. So that, to me, is the excitement too: seeing how we understand Hamlet, or exploring how these great writers had something to say about the human condition that doesn't change depending on the culture they're in. Ultimately, I have a really huge appetite for the great stories of the stage."