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[personal profile] joonscribble
One thing I've been trying to do before I exit NY is to catch some plays. This one was recommended to me by a friend who knows my love of psychology, science, and angst.

Incognito by Nick Payne (playwright of Constellations) threads three major story lines together about how the human brain and its mysteries both limit us but also connect us in ways we cannot ever predict. The play consists of four actors who play roughly 20 roles between them with each story told in fragments, layered on top of one another, so you skip from story to story with actors changing out of character in what feels like 10 minute chunks. The results are a mixed bag but it doesn't detract from some of the powerful ideas Payne has about what makes us who we are and how we are with others.

The production I saw starred Charlie Cox (yes, Daredevil!), Heather Lind, Morgan Spector, and Geneva Carr.


Two of the three main stories are inspired from real life events. We have a pathologist Thomas Harvey (Spector) who takes ownership of Albert Einstein's brain in hopes of studying it to gain a greater understanding of how genius works, we have a man, Henry Maison (Cox) who after undergoing an operation to cure his seizures is no longer capable of creating new memories and thus lives in a 20 second loop, and finally we have neuropsychologist Martha Murphy (Carr) who is attempting to begin a new romantic relationship with a woman for the first time, Patricia Thorn (Lind).

My general opinion of the play is that it probably comes across as more of an actor's dream play than an viewer's. Some of the stories are more affecting than others and because we get them in 10 minute chunks, you can feel a bit of emotional whiplash as actors transition seamlessly from crying to boistrous with no warning. However, when you are able to spend some time with the stories and characters, you get glimpses of some truly wonderful and devastating ideas of what makes us human in all our frailty and resilience. Apart from the Martha/Patricia story, you get to track Thomas and Henry's stories over a span of years and watching their lives dwindle (Thomas due to his singular obsession with Einstein's brain and Henry due to his condition) is heartbreaking.

Henry's story in particular is one that probably would make the strongest person weep except that we get it in pieces so the emotional impact is a little removed. When we first meet Henry, he's a young man being cared for in a hospital by his doctor and ever devoted wife (Lind). Henry greets her every 20 seconds with an effusive joy like he hasn't seen her in awhile and you see the emotional strain this has on her, even as she stubbornly clings on to the hope that one day he'll recover. I have to hand it to Charlie Cox that he can pull out one of the most sympathetic performances with just the way he smiles as poor Henry. He seems to grow increasingly aware that something isn't quite right but can't hold onto a thought long enough to put anything together. His utter helplessness and equal devotion and love for his wife as years pass isn't so much romantic as it is tragic and there was actually one moment where I was glad that the scene transitioned to something else because I was having a ridiculously strong reaction to Henry's confused distress.

The story of Thomas Harvey is like a lesson in what can happen when you cross the line from dedication to obsession. Of all the actors, Morgan Spector had probably the toughest job as he gets the bulk of the roles that are there for plot reasons and somewhat characterless other than Thomas. However, I'd actually say his performance as a whole was probably the strongest. Never does he fall into melodrama (and the play really, REALLY tries hard with melodrama sometimes) and the natural quality of his acting really sold the idea I was watching an actual person rather than a Character with a capital C. In his main role, Spector really got across Thomas' initially benign committment to his work that starts to gradually slide into something else without having to throw in any major bells and whistles.

The Martha/Patricia story by comparison was a little lacking. I actually felt like Geneva Carr and Heather Lind got a little tripped up doing this one in their non-native British accents. Lind in particular seemed a bit too focused on sounding Cockney to the point where I kind of couldn't hold onto who Patricia was or why I should care about her. But it is Martha who eventually connects all the tales together and when you get the final emotional impact of her story, I thought Carr did a great job of threading in why Martha is who she is and why she does the works she does.

The production and stage direction itself I was a bit less enamoured with. There's a over the top quality to all theater work which I accept. But the choice to introduce the three mini-acts (titled "Encoding", "Storing", and "Retrieving.") with the actors doing what looks like a pantomime to seriously loud music felt a bit too much for a play that's already in danger of being considered over the top with the way the stories are told.

All in all, Incognito is a play with some nice ideas that maybe gets a little bogged down by how it chooses to tell the ideas but never to the point where you can't connect to the characters.
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July 2016

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