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Theatre in Review: The Neurology of the Soul (Untitled Theater Company/ART New York Theatres)

Mick O'Brien, Ashley Griffin. Photo: Richard Termine.

Some men yearn to peer into their lady loves' hearts; Stephen, one of the leads in The Neurology of the Soul, is more of a cerebrum man, forever gazing into the brain of Amy, his wife. Stephen is a cognitive neuroscientist, and much of his research consists of putting his subjects into an MRI scanner and watching how their brains react to various words he speaks. Amy is on the receiving end of "beautiful," "sweetie-pie," and "I love you," among other endearments. If you ever wanted to be loved only for your mind, this is the setup for you. And watching this mildly dubious experiment, it's not entirely clear that it isn't Stephen's oddball way of wooing his rather distracted spouse. Something tells me that when he murmurs into a microphone "I want you spread eagled, on my bed and waiting," something other than scientific rigor is involved.

Funnily enough, Stephen isn't the only one trying to expose Amy's insides; she has been at it for years, too, with little success. She was once an artist -- she isn't so much retired as stalled -- having turned out a couple of dozen canvases titled Capturing the Soul: Failed Attempt Number [fill in the blank]. After so many unsatisfactory outcomes, she has hung up her palette and brushes. "My soul is hidden," she insists. "To see that, you would have to watch me when I am home, alone with just a canvas, a brush, and some paint." It probably doesn't help that her marriage seems to have all the passion of a box of soggy firecrackers. He buys her a locket and, by way of seduction, reads a poem by Robert Burns, leaving her to wonder, "Is this a prelude to your next experiment?"

Indeed, Stephen is curious about the effect of Scottish love stanzas on his beloved's gray matter, and by now you can see the problem: Amy no longer knows what constitutes real affection from him and what is an attempt to get more data. This marital stalemate is shaken up when Stephen announces that he is throwing over academia for a job with a neuromarketing firm run by Mark, who practices the dark art of bypassing consumers' brains in favor of their neurotransmitters. In practice, this amounts to, say, stacking an insurance commercial with images of puppies, or selling a bank's services with a soppy, thirty-second film about a middle-aged man giving his daughter away on her wedding day. Such efforts don't even constitute subliminal seduction; they strong-arm viewers with sentimentality.

If the playwright, Edward Einhorn, has difficulty making the Stephen-Amy marriage interesting or convincing, he really struggles to make plausible Stephen's decision to sell his soul for the opportunity to sell out, throwing over academia to focus on his research in the wee hours while spending his days conducting Pavlovian experiments for Mark. (Of course, the money is much better, but, as Amy points out, he already has access to all the equipment he needs.) Amy barely has time to ponder this peculiar state of affairs before Mark offers to launch her as an artist in New York. Is this a bribe? A seduction? Amy, who seems totally clueless about the New York art world, suddenly develops a major case of ambition, spinning out one video after another based on the scans Stephen has made of, yes, her brain. Things get pretty flirty between her and Mark, and, before long, a jealous Stephen is reporting that her gray matter isn't responding to his sweet nothings like they used to.

The Neurology of the Soul aims to be a comedy wrapped in a Tom Stoppard play of ideas, and, handled differently, it might have made for a sexy and stimulating evening. As it stands, Einhorn's captivating ideas are layered on a romantic triangle that is neither passionate enough to get one's attention nor tensile enough to support the question of whether we are merely collections of stimuli or complex creative forces. Amy and Stephen make a dullish pair: She is a bundle of ambivalences who acts only because the playwright needs a reason to activate his plot. Stephen is a kind of uber-nerd, and the lack of spark between these characters is fatal: If one doesn't care about the fate of their marriage, there's not much of a play. Mark is a tad more interesting, especially in his totally disingenuous way of seeming to put his cards on the table, but he is made to pontificate about marketing so often and at such length that my neurotransmitters went numb. Too much of the time, The Neurology of the Soul lacks a soul; it's all talk, talk, talk, conducted by characters who rarely resemble actual human beings.

Einhorn's direction does little to put some starch into these slow-moving proceedings. Ashley Griffin has nice throwaway moments of humor as Amy, but the character has no center; she's a leaf, blown about by the playwright's whims. Matthew Trumbull's Stephen is a weirdly mannered creation, creepy enough that he often seems to be stalking his own spouse. Mick O'Brien captures Mark's determinedly ingratiating manner; one feels that he could turn any human interaction into a PowerPoint presentation. More amusing is Yvonne Roen as the gallery owner who takes on Amy, and who also happens to be Mark's ex-wife, who is familiar with the contents of his bag of tricks.

Jim Boutin's set design places the MRI scanner upstage of a scrim that acts as a screen for Magnus Pind Bjerre's video design; Bjerre's work includes any number of smarmy, button-pushing (and real-life) television commercials, wittily curated for Mark's purposes, along with Amy's brain-wave videos. Ramona Ponce's costumes, Jeff Nash's lighting, and Sadah Espii Proctor's sound are all okay, although it isn't easy to understand Griffin's dialogue when she is upstage, in the MRI scanner.

The Neurology of the Soul has its moments, including a bit where Amy is seen, looking forlorn, outside the gallery on the night of her opening; Mark's initial explanation how his techniques work is equally engaging and unsettling. The bones of the piece are good, but the execution is lackadaisical and lacking in emotional detail. As theatrical experiments go, the data is inconclusive. -- David Barbour

(20 February 2019)

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