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It’s no secret that the subscription audiences of Manhattan Theatre Club tend to be on the stodgy side. So there’s something delightfully perverse about the company challenging its regulars with the brain-teasing, science-themed dramas of Nick Payne, a young British playwright who makes Tom Stoppard seem lowbrow. Following on the heels of MTC’s Broadway staging of Constellations — a play that combined quantum physics and romance and starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson — is Incognito, a complex work tackling the vagaries of the human brain and the nature of identity. Exiting the off-Broadway theater after a recent performance, comments on the order of “I didn’t get it!” were heard in abundance.
The confusion is understandable, because if you don’t pay very close attention it’s easy to get lost. Performing on a bare circular stage ringed with chairs, four actors — two men and two women — play 20 roles. Three separate stories, two based on real-life events, are presented in interwoven fashion.
One concerns Thomas Harvey (Morgan Spector), the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and stole his brain for the purpose of scientific research, which fruitlessly lasted for decades. Another involves Henry (Charlie Cox, of Netflix’s Daredevil), a mild-mannered Brit, who, after undergoing an experimental operation to cure his seizures, tragically experienced short-term memory loss for the rest of his life. The last, and least interesting, depicts the romance between neuropsychologist Martha (Hand to God ‘s Geneva Carr) and lawyer Patricia (Heather Lind, AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies), which becomes threatened when the latter discovers that her new lover had been married for decades and has a grown son.
Efficiently staged by Doug Hughes, the play features short scenes relating to each plotline delivered in rapid succession, with the actors jumping from one character to another at the drop of a hat, often with different accents. It’s an extremely challenging assignment that the ensemble cast executes with admirable skill and precision, although the silly choreographed movement they’re forced to perform between the work’s three segments — labeled “Encoding,” “Storing” and “Retrieving,” get it? — is unfortunate.
Incognito exerts a certain fascination, but it’s also deeply frustrating. Just as you become interested in one plot strand, another less compelling one rears its ugly head. Despite its brevity (clocking in at an intermissionless 90 minutes), the play feels bloated, padded with such extraneous scenes as a lengthy flirtatious encounter between Harvey and a diner waitress who invites him home for pancakes. Other moments, such as when we see an unknown man strangle a woman, seemingly for no reason, are left unexplained until late in the evening.
Much like Stoppard, Payne tends to concentrate on the cerebral, with the result that watching Incognito feels like working on a particularly difficult crossword puzzle. It’s satisfying up to a point, but we’re rarely emotionally engaged. It’s only toward the end, when Henry, a former pianist, unwittingly relates the same story over and over again, about looking forward to a honeymoon with his fiancée in Brighton, do we truly sympathize with his heartbreaking plight. He’s then coaxed to play the piano, and the effortless skill he’s still able to muster beautifully illustrates the complexity of the human brain. Just be sure to bring yours with you when you see this play.
Venue: New York City Center Stage I, New York
Cast: Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, Morgan Spector
Playwright: Nick Payne
Director: Doug Hughes
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music & sound designer: David Van Tiegham
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
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