By Nick Payne
Directed by Doug Hughes
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
The jury remains out in the scientific community: which came first the brain or the mind? Throw into the discussion precisely where memory resides and how it is accessed and the debate becomes even more interesting and convoluted. Playwright Nick Payne focuses his interest on the brain and memory and in the American premiere of his “Incognito” – currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I – he raises enduring questions that challenge the status quo assumptions about both.
How much of what we experience, remember, and think is real? Are our brains passive data banks that receive, store and render up the reality we experience or do our brains process what we experience, remember, and think with some sleight of hand? In other words, can our brains “trick” us and if they can, are there ways to harness that chicanery to enrich our lives and perhaps the lives of others?
The four actors in “Incognito” double up and portray twenty characters within three interwoven stories. All of the action takes place on, on the edge of, or just beyond Scott Pask’s stark “brainscape” set. There are only four chairs on the stage. The actors remain in the same costumes – designed by Catherine Zuber – throughout and speak a variety of dialects making it necessary for the audience to remain focused and diligent throughout. However, one needs to remember that what one is seeing is hurtling out from the “brain” and is, at best, illusory and unreliable. So whether one keeps track of all of the characters in the three stories all of the time might not be important.
The three stories intertwine in episodic – not chronological – fashion and involve three functions of the brain: encoding; storing; and retrieving. These functions comprise three “scenes” in which all three stories continue in random order and without regard to the passage of time. Prior to each “scene,” the four actors engage in a stylized and well-choreographed arm and hand movements mimicking the synaptic firing in the brain. These “dances” – directed by Peter Pucci – give the audience members an opportunity to re-boot their own brain for the action to come.
In one story, pathologist Thomas Harvey (Morgan Spector) steals Albert Einstein’s brain after performing the deceased icon’s autopsy. In another, neuropsychologist Martha Murphy (Geneva Carr) experiences her first romance with another woman Patricia Thorn (Heather Lind). And in the third story, a seizure patient Henry Maison (Charlie Cox) forgets everything but how much he loves his fiancé Margaret Thomson (Heather Lind). The stories blend into one another without warning and the dialogue is rapid and overlapping.
Each of the four actors also portrays characters that are part of these stories: Thomas’ wife Eloise (Geneva Carr); Einstein’s daughter (Geneva Carr); Martha’s brother Ben (Charlie Cox); and Henry’s physician Victor Milner (Morgan Spector). And this is only ten of the twenty characters in the play!
What happens to Einstein’s brain, Thomas Harvey’s marriage, Martha and Patricia’s romance, and Henry’s memory – including his ability to remember how to play the piano – makes up the engaging ninety minutes of Mr. Payne’s important play. Each actor gives their multiple characters distinct characteristics, mannerisms, and speech patterns. This results in authentic and believable performances throughout. Doug Hughes’ direction is necessarily fast-paced and exact demanding the actors fall into and out of character with lightning speed – not as fast as the crossing of a synapse in the brain, but fast.
Ben Stanton’s lighting and David Van Tieghem’s original music and sound design add to the suspense and the overall success of the production. Kudos as well to dialect coach Stephen Gabis and fight director J. David Brimmer.
As the audience tries to keep pace with the action on stage, their individual and collective brains are processing information, deciding how to store it, and just how to make it available for retrieval. Our brains are creating new pathways as we watch – a remarkable feat. And as we leave the theatre, we will ultimately have to decide whether what we experienced was real, fiction, or perhaps pure illusion. And we will discover whether Einstein was a genius because of his brain or because “Albie worked like a dog and he treated his family like crap.” Yes, it will be a bit of a glorious bumpy ride.