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A CurtainUp Review

Incognito = having one's identity concealed.

Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several true stories, this play is a work of fiction. But then isn't everything.— Nick Payne, about Incognito.
L-R: Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr,Heather Lind, Charlie Cox (Photo: Joan Marcus
Nick Payne's last play Constellations was a love story between cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland told in multiple variations. His comment that one of their parallel universal interchanges genuinely turned him on, had obvious parallels. Audiences and critics in both London and New York were turned on by the original way he tackled big ideas like quantum physics and astronomy.

Now the award-winning young playwright, who's seen by many as an heir to Tom Stoppard, has once again created a dramatic intellectual puzzle about the workings of that most mysterious human organ, the brain. He's used the same edgy structure of fast-paced viewpoint switches and upped the number of actors from two to four. Unlike Constellation which was basically one story replaying the same characters' varied comings and going in parallel universes, Incognito zig-zags back and forth between three stories — two loosely fact-based and one completely fictional — involving twenty characters. Even with a larger cast, it's obviously daunting for these actors to clearly differentiate their constantly shifting personalitiess so that eventually everything coalesces.

The scientific conundrums posed focus on what determines peoples' identity: Their brains? Their memories? Their jobs? Their relationships? But don't expect any definitive answers. What you can expect is that though the actors deftly and vividly individualize the four to six characters assigned to them, that you're likely to experience a few Huh, what's going on here? moments.

A brief rundown of the three converging stories: The most dramatic and probably best known real story is Payne's version of how American pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey stole Einstein's brain. The most moving story revolves around a young Brit named Henry (in real life an American), whose experimental surgery to cure his seizures results in his inability to either form new memories or remember anything or anyone from his past; that is all except his beloved young bride Margaret. Consequently all the scenes about him begin like a broken old-style phonograph record with his "Hello my love, where have you been?" The most contemporary and strictly Payne inspired scenes involve two women who meet through a dating service. One is a neuropsychologist who's only recently left a conventional marriage and is still coping with being open about her new sexual identity and the other is a less inhibited lawyer.

Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind and Morgan Spector handle the to and fro between characters and story lines with great physical as well as emotional and verbal dexterity. They change personalities with breathtaking speed.

The play is mounted without the scenic props and costume changes common to a major company's productions. Yet director Doug Hughes staging is dynamic from the moment the actors enter from the stage. Scott Pask's deceptively simple but complex set is dominated by a circular platform. Costumer Catherine Zuber's single gray and black outfit for each actor effectively supports the coming together of the disparate stories.

The ubiquitous dialect coach Stephen Gabis deserves a hand for helping the actors to sound authentic no matter what accent is called for. The single act's many non-stop mini scenes feature three major breaks announced by the titles of "Encoding, Storing"and "Retrieving." These breaks are choreographed by movement director Peter Pucci. His having the actors regroup by fast walking, almost racing, around that circular platform works well and provides an unusual extra credit as Dance Captain for Heather Lind. However, the addition of a rather frantic hand movement routine seems pointless and pretentious.

If you liked Constellations, you'll be glad Mr. Payne is back with another clever brain teaser. And given this excellent production and acting ensemble he's sure to win some new fans. That said, however, Incognito isn't quite as emotionally engaging as his Constellation or another currently running science themed play, Lucy Prebble's The Effect. I was just about to conclude this review by expressing my hope that Incognito that Mr. Payne won't rely on this format to a point where it will come off as gimmicky when an email arrived from our London critic. And there went my planned ending for attached was her review of his latest play,Elegy . It's theme is once again scientific, and its plot non-linear — but no zig-zagging multiple role playing by the characters.

For links and summaries to other science and math related plays we've reviewed, check out our Science Plays Page .

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Incognito by Nick Payne
Directed by Doug Hughes.
Cast: Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, Morgan Spector
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Original music and Sound: David Van Tieghem
Fight director: J. David Brimmer
Movement director:, Peter Pucci
Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager:Vanessa Coakley
Running Time: Approximate 90 minutes, no intermission. (The ushers informed audiences entering the theater that it was 85 minutes but the performance I attended ran five minutes longer than the announced 90 minutes in my press release.
Manhattan Theater Club City Center Stage 1 131 W. 55th Street From 5/03/16; opening 5/24/16; closing 7/10/16.
Reviewed by Elyse sommer at 5/20 press preview

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