Aisle View: Einstein's Brain

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Heather Lind and Geneva Carr in Incognito.
Photo: Joan Marcus

Admirers of Nick Payne's Constellations, which Manhattan Theatre Club produced last year at the Friedman, will likely be thrilled by Payne's Incognito. MTC stalwart Doug Hughes puts an adept four-person cast through this convoluted-by-design brain-teaser--or let's make that a no-brain teaser--which is likely to send you out of the theatre working out the puzzle. And keep you thinking for days after.

Incognito is brainy, all right; the event which sets off the action is the autopsy of Alfred Einstein in 1955, when pathologist Thomas Harvey saw fit to more or less steal the great man's brain for future research. And yes, this is factual. Payne slices the story--like a tissue specimen?--and intertwines it with two thematically similar but different plots (which turn out, if you pay attention, to intersect). And lest you ponder that this sounds like something Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn might have dazzled us with, you are right. The good news of the day is that Payne pulls it off.

Payne's second plot tells of Henry Maison, an Englishman whose amnesia--brought on by seizures--makes him a prized research subject. The third plot, which begins forty years after the first two, deals with Marsha, a clinical neurologist dealing with similar and related issues.

(Henry is a fictionalized version if Henry Molaison, a Connecticut man whose severe epilepsy was cured by a lobotomy in 1953. This left him with no short-term memory while not affecting his long-term memory. His case, referred to in medical journals by the initials "H.M.", helped establish modern scientific knowledge of the brain and memory. He remained a clinical subject until his death in 2008, and his brain--like Einstein's--was preserved for study.)
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Charlie Cox, Morgan Spector,
Geneva Carr and Heather Lind in
Incognito.
Photo: Joan Marcus

We do not get to see Einstein, save for a section of his hippocampus. We do meet his son and his (illegitimate) daughter, though. All told, Payne's ninety-minute play is sectioned in three parts and 31 scenes, devised to be played by a cast of four playing twenty characters. This keeps the actors and director Hughes mighty busy; the scenes overlap--sometimes mid-sentence--and are played without set or costume changes.

The most familiar player is Geneva Carr, who made an arresting Broadway debut last year as Jason's (and Tyrone's) mother in Hand to God. She is equally strong here, as Marsha (and others). The most interesting performance comes from Heather Lind, as Patricia (Marsha's girlfriend) and the waitress Lisa-Scott (who befriends the wandering Dr. Harvey). Lind is striking; she lights up the stage in the same manner as the young Joanna Gleason, if you know what I mean. (Her program bio tells us that we've seen her before, as Shylock's daughter Jessica in the Al Pacino Merchant of Venice. While I don't recall the performer, I remember that it was quite a nice performance.) Her skill is demonstrated by a monologue consisting of thirteen mid-West diner side dishes--from coleslaw to onion rings--which Lind turns into something deliciously funny. Charlie Cox, a British actor best known for the Netflix series "Daredevil," gives a gentle performance as Henry. Morgan Spector plays the fourth hand, and is prominent as the pathologist Harvey.
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Charlie Cox and Heather Lind in Incognito.
Photo: Joan Marcus

It should be stated that folk in search of light entertainment might do well to go elsewhere; Incognito could overwhelm people who aren't looking for an evening of intellectual stimulation. But then, the same could be said for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Travesties. Director Hughes and MTC concurrently have The Father (starring Frank Langella) on the boards; which is to say, they are offering two highly-recommended, thought-provoking, impressive and entertaining new plays.
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The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Nick Payne's Incognito opened May 24, 2016 and continues through June 26 at City Center Stage 1