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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 24, 2016

Charlie Cox, Morgan Spector,
Geneva Carr, and Heather Lind
Photo by Joan Marcus

At one time or another, we've all had our minds play tricks on us. But how often does someone else's mind play tricks on us? That happens, with forceful and arresting frequency, in Incognito, the new play by Nick Payne at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I theater. That the "other mind" in question belongs to a particularly famous thinker—Albert Einstein—is oddly beside the point. What matters more, as is always the case, is the interpretation required to make sense of it all and the temerity to take the leap in the leap in the first place. If you supply those, Payne, director Doug Hughes, and their largely sterling cast will provide the rest, and in spades.

This is not, however (if you'll pardon the pun), a mindless experience. Because the four actors (Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector) play some two dozen characters across several decades of time on a nondescript, disk-shaped playing area (designed by Scott Pask and lighted by Ben Stanton) with barely so much as a shift of Catherine Zuber's costumes, things move quickly, and much of the onus for keeping up with it all is on you. It's not in any way difficult (everyone is at too high a level for that), but some commitment on your part is involved to refashion the individual colliding neurons within this gray-matter production into a cohesive and coherent story.

At the outset, that's not so clear. You're introduced to a flurry of characters who all appear to be at cross-purposes (if not cross-identities) in communicating what the heck is going on. A woman named Evelyn bound up by perplexing questions of paternity, confronted by a man named Michael who promises information on her father she couldn't possibly have. Henry, who is capable of remembering nothing, trying to conduct the basics of life and human interaction despite needing to restart from nearly scratch every 45 seconds or so. Two dating women who meet online and hit it off, but are doing so on less an honest foundation than they initially believe. Last, but by no means least, a doctor who is so captivated by the prospect of being able to investigate Einstein's brain that, upon his death, he steals it right from his head.

Charlie Cox and Heather Lind
Photo by Joan Marcus

Although this biggest of the plot strains is the last to be introduced, it's also the most vital, as it ends up tying everything together. How? Well... Most of the fun and satisfaction of Incognito derives from discovering that for yourself, so I'd prefer to defer on additional details. What I will assure you is that the pieces do end up interlocking, and everything murky (not least of which are the hows and whens, as several different eras are surreptitiously tangled) is made clear by the time the lights darken after 90 minutes, leaving you to marvel at the myriad ways minds—and creative playwrights—have of imposing order on seeming nonsense.

Many theatregoers, of course, will not need to be convinced of this, as Payne did much the same thing on Broadway last season with Constellations (also produced by MTC). That play, like this one, messed around with perception and dramatic geography and, like this one, paid enormous theatrical dividends if you were willing to stick with it. But what it offered that Incognito doesn't, at least to the same degree, is a rigorous depth of feeling: It's a lot easier to dig into the hearts of two characters speed-dating their way through the multiverse than into those of 20 people, scattered around the world and the last 100 years, who must expend a fair amount of effort to come together for their benefit and their own. As a result, if this play is even more compelling in its narrative, it's far less moving.

True, Hughes does not help as much as he could. For all the staging acuity he's brought to the evening, can't resist dividing the individual sections with avant-garde dance numbers (the "movement director," apparently in charge of policing flailing limbs, is Peter Pucci), which is both distancing and pretentious, two qualities that are not in evidence elsewhere in Payne's writing. Ultimately, though, Payne comes across as working ten times as wide as he is deep, and that imbalance tends to preclude engagement much outside the head. I found it difficult to care, for example, about Martha and Patricia's romantic squabblings with each other, or whether Dr. Thomas Harvey would supercharge his career or turn himself into history's laughingstock because of his obsession with and studies on the brain. We spend no shortage of time with them, but they're too busy setting other things up to be free to truly define themselves.

Only Henry's scenes captivate on that more profound level, in part because Payne has (in sheer defiance of common sense) ensured that the man who can never take more than two steps forward at a time goes on the most significant journey, and in part because Cox plays him so well. This star of the TV series Daredevil and Boardwalk Empire doesn't so much build Henry as strip away everything from him that's not required, revealing, at his core, an Everyman simplicity and earnestness that could not be sweeter or more fetching. You watch, across the jumbled scenes, his voice, his posture, and his very confidence degrade as the years and his condition take their toll, but through an unchanging warm genuineness, Cox lets us see that this is always the same man; so effective is he, in fact, that his confusion ends up often feeling more real than the actual world he inhabits.

The other actors can't go that far—Carr and Lind, fielding roles with a bit more variety, come close; Spector, playing perhaps too lengthy a series of jerks and always with the same bland appliqué of dark irritation, satisfies less—and thus, in the end, neither can Incognito. But if the play might register as richer still on a more completely level playing field, something that goes even further to prove Payne's point that everyone's brain is just as complex and full of genius potential as Einstein's was, assuming it's properly tapped, it's still gripping in how much it does attempt and how much of that it achieves. And one suspects, even during the sags, that it wouldn't take much to make this intellectual triumph into an emotional triumph as well.

Through June 26
New York City Center – Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
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