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Theatre in Review: Incognito (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr, Heather Lind, Charlie Cox. Photo: Joan Marcus

Incognito teems with so many people and plotlines that one's brain sometimes struggles to take them all in: For example, there's the real-life character Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein -- and kept the brain for himself, studying it for decades in search of a physiological basis for the great man's genius. There's also the case of Henry, who has no retentive memory: He repeatedly greets his fiancée, Margaret, as if she has been away, even though she hasn't left the room -- yet he can play melodies on the piano without the aid of sheet music. Similarly, Martha Murphy, a clinical neuropsychologist, considers the case of Anthony, who can talk a blue streak about certain limited subjects, yet cannot answer the simplest questions. Meanwhile, Martha tentatively begins a romantic relationship with the much-younger Patricia, which she compromises with her secrets and drinking that ends in blackouts. And then there's Richard, who, during a bout of sleepwalking possibly caused by going on antidepressant medication, strangles his wife.

Because the action of Incognito is mazelike, these narratives have a way of mirroring each other -- when they aren't forging unexpected connections. Thomas probes Einstein's brain for decades, fruitlessly, then is persuaded by Michael, an unscrupulous journalist, to make a cross-country car trip, the brain tucked away in the trunk, to visit Einstein's adoptive granddaughter, Evelyn -- who may, in fact, be the product of an affair between the scientist and an unnamed ballerina. Thomas isn't the only one obsessed with brains: As Henry's condition worsens, he is visited by Sharon, a "brain donation nurse," who believes his tissue will yield important research data. Patricia connects Martha with Greg, a lawyer; he is defending Richard in his murder trial and wants Martha to offer expert testimony for the defense. And before the play is over, Martha will be dropping in on Henry for a look-see.

The brain: How does it function? Why does it malfunction? How does it harbor that mysterious thing called a self -- or does it? Nick Payne, the playwright, cuts between these narratives in order to ponder the workings of that little power center in our skulls, and to ask what we mean by such concepts as identity and perception. "Exactly as we have mapped the cosmos, we now need to map the human brain," says Thomas. "Because if you can understand the ingredients, the components, that make us who we are, then, by God, you can understand anything." Easier said than done: Offering an implicit rebuke to Thomas, whom she doesn't know, Martha says, "When you really, really look at a brain, you realize, or at least I did, there's nothing. There is nothing there. Nothing in there. You can poke it, you can prod it, you can weigh it, you can chop it up."

Indeed, Martha insists, "There is no me, there is no you, and there certainly is no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it's really, really good at fooling us." Not that she sees this as a bad thing; talking about Anthony, she adds, "Imagine how liberating it would be not to know who you are." All of this may be a defense of Martha's inability to pin down her sexual identity, and her secrecy. (She withholds several key facts about herself from Patricia, imperiling their affair.) Then again, just as Evelyn Einstein's paternity is in question, Martha is handed a bombshell revelation about her own parentage, which connects her to one of the other characters in the play.

A web of fictionalized case histories and imaginative propositions, Incognito provides plenty of brain-tickling moments; still, Payne is better at posing questions than answering them, and his handling of all these narratives leaves much to be desired. The script is loaded with many nagging questions: It's unclear exactly what Thomas does with Einstein's brain over several decades. It is never made clear that Henry's memory problems stem from his treatment for epilepsy. (His story is based on a case history recounted in the book Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient, H.M., one of several texts cited by the playwright.) In one scene, Thomas' marriage is in tatters, thanks to his adultery; the next time we see him and his wife, Elouise, all is well, with no explanation.

Then again, the cast of four -- each of whom must have an especially well-developed hippocampus (the seat of long- and short-term memory) -- navigate Payne's intricately constructed script so nimbly, they are an excellent reason to visit City Center Stage I. Geneva Carr shines as the brittle, opinionated, self-destructive Martha; she also makes a mordant appearance as Evelyn Einstein, who has little use for Thomas' research. Charlie Cox is heartbreaking as poor, baffled Henry and suitably repellent as the slickly manipulative journalist, Michael. Heather Lind excels as the tough-minded Patricia and as Lisa-Scott, a Kansas waitress who seduces Michael, with not entirely happy results. Morgan Spector ably portrays Thomas at two stages of life as well as the garrulous, deeply confused Anthony. The director, Doug Hughes, blends all four into an ensemble capable of switching characters and storylines in seconds, aided only by slight tweaks in Ben Stanton's lighting.

The rest of the design is equally apt. Scott Pask's sleek set design places a circular stage against a curved cyc, onto which are projected announcements of such brain functions as "storing" and "retrieval." Catherine Zuber dresses the actors in chic leisurewear in a gray palette, a low-key approach that gives them the space to create various characters. David Van Tieghem's sound design provides fine reinforcement for his percussive incidental music.

Indeed, Hughes' immaculate staging is more assured than Payne's often messy script. Incognito reminds one a bit of early Tom Stoppard dramatic research papers; Payne has done plenty of homework and seems to thrill in sharing it with the audience. If it results in a whirring top of a play, spinning off ideas without regard for an overall point of view, it offers many dazzling moments and a prodigious cast. Your brain will be teased -- and even sometimes satisfied. -- David Barbour

(13 June 2016)

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