What we don’t know about the brain and the heart drives this at times unwieldy, yet ultimately satisfying, theatrical work.
Incognito by Nick Payne. Directed by Tyler Dobrowsky. Staged by The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, RI, through December 10.
By Mary Paula Hunter
The brain–yours, mine, and Albert Einstein’s–is at the center of The Gamm Theatre’s production of Incognito, an engaging play by Nick Payne, the author of the Broadway/London hit Constellations. Like his earlier play, Incognito seamlessly combines science and matters of the heart, closing the gap between the enigmatic and the knowable.
Unlike the two-character script Constellations, Incognito features four actors playing a total of twenty-one characters. Keeping track of who’s who is part of the fun as well as a metaphor: the play’s moving-parts mirror the working of the brain itself.
One missing or cracked piece in the cranium and it all falls apart. At least that is the point of the story of Henry, whose seizure disorder renders him unable to remember the love of his life from one moment to the next. Or the gentle man who goes off his anti-depressant in order to properly celebrate his 30th anniversary, But, instead of making love to his wife, he strangles her–a crime he professes no memory of.
So how does this brain work? Is it the driver of human activity both noble and duplicitous? Henry’s wife is loyal and true, begging her husband to resume playing the piano, a vestige of their rich former life. But most characters in Incognito distort reality to suit their own benefit–none more egregiously than the reporter (played via a stand-out performance by Michael Liebhauser) who profiles Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who takes a chance and steals Einstein’s brain. By digging up dirt on Harvey’s personal life, the go-getter reporter aims to launch a big-time journalism career rather than, as he promised, tell the world about Harvey’s alleged break-through lab work and his insights into the secret of Einstein’s genius.
Throughout the barrage of encounters and interactions, hapless pathologist Harvey carts Einstein’s brain around in his car trunk, desperate to prove that the synapses of a genius are unique. (Yes, at times the play feels overstuffed.) Einstein’s daughter derides Harvey’s efforts, insisting that her father was distinct — but only owing to his extreme meanness and relentless ambition. The world is in awe of her father’s achievement: there a nice scene between two scientists in which man’s acceptance of the pre-Einstein theory of a static cosmos is made to look ridiculous. But she has nothing but contempt for her father.
Harvey’s counterpart is neuroscientist Martha Murphy, who herself has trouble dealing with the truth. She is not convinced that the brain drives our actions entirely on its own. An ineffable appeal draws her into a romantic tryst with Patricia, another bi-sexual whose identity, like nearly all the characters in this play, is fluid. Like the cosmos, love is rarely static.
In her most telling dramatic interaction, Martha opposes a snarky lawyer (an unfortunate stereotype) who needs her to testify that a murderer had no control over his actions. Without the proper medication, his brain went haywire. Martha resists his verbal pummeling. Is it that the brain is too unknowable? The ‘incognito’ of Payne’s title? Or is it that the inner life can’t be parsed so easily? What we don’t know about the brain and the heart drives this at times unwieldy, yet ultimately satisfying, theatrical work.
Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.