A Second Opinion Review: ‘Incognito’, starring the Brain of Albert Einstein

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

This is the second play related to memory loss, that Doug Hughes directed recently for Manhattan Theater Club. The other one is Broadway’s The Father, starring Frank Lungella (for which he is nominated for a Tony as Best Actor). It’s difficult not to compare them since I saw both within one week. There is a lot of overlap as both of them are modern plays with a male character suffering from memory loss and both of them have scenes repeating themselves. There is one major difference though. The mind of an aging man suffering from dementia is the focus of The Father. The center point of Incognito, written by British Nick Payne, is the physical brain of Albert Einstein, which the pathologist Thomas Harvey steals after the autopsy of the famous scientist.    

The other common thing that The Father and Incognito share is the minimalistic approach to the visual design and letting the text of the play “run the show”, so to speak.  It might seem that Doug Hughes decided to take it further by using an even more formalist approach. The set is reduced to a round “petri dish” of a stage with four chairs on it. Four actors (Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector) play 21 characters combined, and are on stage all the time. They are each other’s relatives, spouses, lovers, doctors and patients. There are three plot lines, two of which are based on real people and events. 

The play is quite a riddle and it gets your brain’s gears moving. The short scenes between characters sometimes end in the middle of sentence. A few times, the scenes with the same actors playing different characters follow each other. Help comes from the lighting design by Ben Stanton as it guides the eye by changing from scene to scene to minimalize the confusion. Bright flashes of a blue stripe running along the back wall introduce each new part. The robotic chorographical numbers have the same function of chapter markers. I like the idea of those but the dancing performance lacked sharpness. 

Photo: MTC

Photo: MTC

The acting on the other hand was really engaging which is not easy to achieve under the circumstances. Without an ability to attach a single character to the actor, it is almost impossible do develop any compassion, on which most dramas rely. Without the crutches of the set, props, wardrobe, etc., which helps the actor to transform, it becomes entirely about their body language, their voice, accent, and mimicry. And I must say, all four were incredibly interesting to watch.           

Incognito continues a fairly unoriginal topic in and of itself, and again reminds us that there is no direct connection between human genius and the physical brain. The pathologist, Thomas, looks rather sad and comical with his obsessive attachment to Einstein’s brain and desire to map it for the sake of science and humanity. Martha, the neuropsychologist, voices an interesting concept of perceiving memory and identity loss as liberation and encourages her patients to enjoy the moments of amnesia. Incognito is sprinkled with teasing moments like this, which you might find odd or hilarious. 

Enjoy the extended run of Incognito until July 10th at NY City Center, 131 West 55th street, New York. If eligible, take an advantage of 30 Under 30 ticket discount program and Student Rush. Tickets and more information about the show can be found here: http://incognitoplay.com/