June 15, 2016

"Incognito" is Virtually Incomprehensible

The last two minutes are the only fully satisfying ones in Incognito, the new Nick Payne play that is running at Manhattan Theatre Club through July 10. The problem is that while they really are terrific minutes you have to sit through the other 88 to get to them.

Payne, just 32, has built up a reputation as his generation's Tom Stoppard, a maker of brainy, challenging plays aimed at smart theatergoers. I like to think of myself as one of them but I've run hot and cold on Payne's work. 

I loved Constellations, his metaphysical love story between a beekeeper and a quantum physicist that had a limited run on Broadway last year (click here for my review). But I was less taken with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a messy fantasia about a bullied girl and her dysfunctional family that played at the Roundabout Theatre four years ago (click here for that review).

This time out Payne makes the braininess literal. His focus is on how the mind works and he offers three main storylines of such self-conscious solemnity that you'd think he were auditioning them to be case studies in one of the late Oliver Sacks' bestsellers about weird neurological disorders.

The first is based on the real-life pathologist who stole Albert Einstein's brain (click here for an account of the real event). The second is inspired by the true story of a man who lost his short-term memory after an operation and so could live only in the past. And the third, seemingly fictional, is about the love affair between two women—one a lawyer, the other a neuropsychologist.

A cast of four portrays these and a dozen or so other characters. The actors—Geneva Carr, Heather Lind, Morgan Spector and Charlie Cox, the now requisite Hollywood √©migr√©, in this case from the Netflix superhero series "Daredevil" (click here to read a Q&A with him)—are all excellent.

But there is no set, just a moving turntable and four straight-backed chairs. And there are no real costumes, just everyday wear in hues of brain-matter gray. So the actors have to indicate their changes from one character to another solely with body language and vocal intonations. They do a valiant job but it's still confusing to figure out who is who and what they mean to whom.

Director Doug Hughes tries to help by projecting thematic words—Encoding, Storing, Receiving—on a screen and creating brief intervals in which the action stops, music plays and the actors engage in choreographic movements that reminded me of Madonna videos from her voguing phase. But I couldn't figure out what the hell that gesturing was supposed to mean either.

The only thing that ended up resonating with me were those final moments with the amnesiac, beautifully realized by Cox, because they played to the heart as well as the head.

The program notes supply a reading list that inspired the play and that presumably might help one to understand it better. But while I'm up for a thought-provoking experience as much as the next smart theater lover, I don't think watching a play should be the equivalent of taking a GRE.

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