by Ryan Leeds
If you’re planning to see Nick Payne’s especially heady drama, Incognito, you’ll want to be well rested and comfortably alert before it begins. Payne notes in the playbill that, “Despite being based, albeit very loosely on several true stories, this play is a work of fiction. But then isn’t everything.” Given the list of reference books that inspired the work, one point is absolutely clear: Payne has compressed more information about the human mind into 90 minutes than most of us will understand in a lifetime—including quite possibly the play itself.
Payne’s trio of interconnected stories focuses primarily on Albert Einstein’s brain, stolen and preserved in formaldehyde by Thomas Harvey (Morgan Spector), a neurosurgeon. Another scenario involves the short-term memory loss-caused by seizures- of Henry Maison (Charlie Cox) and the treatment he seeks with his girlfriend, Margaret (Heather Lind). The third plot line details Martha (Geneva Carr), a clinical neuropsychologist trying to make sense of her sexuality and relationship with Patricia (also played by Lind). In total, there are twenty characters played by four incredibly fine actors. Even if you’re still scratching your head at the curtain call, one has to admire the marathon that they are running eight times a week.
The crux of Incognito appears to be summarized by Martha, who explains to Patricia:
Our brains are constantly, exhaustively working overtime to deliver the illusion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a story-telling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.
Thus, what we believe as reality is masquerading incognito as something else.
Director Doug Hughes undoubtedly has had the human brain on his own mind lately, as he employs some of the same techniques here that he used in his current Tony nominated show, The Father, a play about a man’s spiral into Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the non-linear structure of that play, it was much easier to comprehend. Scott Pask’s sparse scenic design, along with Ben Stanton’s lighting, creates an appropriately clinical and sterile scientific atmosphere.
While it would be unfair to pan a play I don’t fully understand, one thing is clear: at least for this reviewer, the meaning of Incognito is in disguise.
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street, NYC
Through June 26
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.