In “Incognito,” a pathologist steals Albert Einstein’s brain; a man who has no short-term memory keeps on asking for his wife, whom he doesn’t realize had died; two women meet on a blind date, one a lawyer, the other a clinical neuropsychologist.
These are the three threads that make up the latest play by Nick Payne. Any one of these strands might have made a satisfying and intriguing drama about the mysteries of the mind, especially the story of Einstein’s brain. But deliberately jumbled together, they make at best a challenging drama, at worst a pretentious one.
Payne’s “Constellations” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, which marked the playwright’s Broadway debut last year, explored concepts in physics not so much by explaining them as by applying them on stage. “Incognito,” which is running through July 10 at Manhattan Theatre Club, is even less straightforward.
“Science confounds and enlightens through its continued and systematic observation of our world, exactly as it is,” the pathologist, Thomas Harvey (Morgan Spector) says at one point. In “Incognito,” the playwright seems more interested in confounding than enlightening his audience.
Four wonderful actors — Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind and Morgan Spector —
portray 20 characters in lightning-quick succession as brief, alternate scenes from each of the three strands unfold, organized in a way that deliberately keeps us in the dark about much of what’s going on until the end. Sometimes one character stops mid-sentence and turns into another character. Scott Pask’s set, an empty arena with a couple of chairs, seems designed to offer no clues.
There is perhaps some theoretical and meta-theatrical justification for Payne’s approach. As Martha (Geneva Carr), the newly lesbian neuropsychologist, puts it in the play: “The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. The brain is a story-telling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.”
So perhaps Payne is having fun applying the theories of how the brain processes information, trying to force our brains to make narrative sense out of tantalizing tidbits. Among these tidbits: We learn eventually that the amnesiac Henry (a touching portrayal by Charlie Cox), can still play complete works of classical music on the piano. Evelyn Einstein (Carr) asks that DNA testing be conducted on Einstein’s brain (the rest of him was cremated) so that she can determine whether or not she is in reality his illegitimate daughter via his alleged affair with a ballet dancer.
But, despite these juicy morsels, my brain rebelled. Although “Incognito” is only about 90 minutes long, my mind started working out different narratives than the ones on the stage, such as where we might eat dinner afterwards. This was not because of the subject matter; I long have been a fan of the sort of mysteries of the mind and the brain that neurologist Oliver Sacks explored so fruitfully – and related so clearly.
In an author’s note, Payne supplies a reading list of 10 books about the brain and memory that “inspired” his play. He also writes: “Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several true stories, this play is a work of fiction. But then isn’t everything.”
No, Mr. Payne, everything isn’t fiction. “Incognito” quotes Einstein as having said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It doesn’t quote something else Einstein said: “Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”