Four actors play 20 roles in “Incognito,” an American premiere from Nick Payne, the whip-smart young writer whose “Constellations,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, was a highlight of MTC’s 2014-2015 season.
“Constellations” was a “multiverse” play, in which scenes were played over, with minor differences. Payne remains a student of mental whiz-bangery: With “Incognito” he weaves together three stories in a non-linear exploration of memory. Such literary athleticism worked to his advantage in “Constellations,” but constrains things here.
Directed by Doug Hughes and unfolding in a single 90-minute act, “Incognito” on the surface tells semi-fictionalized accounts of two real men whose brains were studied by science after their deaths: Albert Einstein and Henry Molaison (here, turned into a Brit with an abbreviated last name).
Four gifted actors are on stage: Geneva Carr, of the devilish puppet tale “Hand to God”; Charlie Cox, of the Netflix series “Daredevil”; Heather Lind, whose Broadway debut came alongside Al Pacino in “The Merchant of Venice”; and Morgan Spector, co-star of “Machinal” and Off-Broadway’s recent “Ironbound.”
The quartet play different roles as three stories unfold. Press notes condense the proceedings as such: “A pathologist (Spector) steals the brain of Albert Einstein; a neuropsychologist (Carr) embarks on her first romance with another woman (Lind); a seizure patient (Cox) forgets everything but how much he loves his girlfriend (Lind, again).”
With few actors inhabiting so many roles, even the sharpest theatergoer may strain to keep up with scene and character changes. There is virtually no set (“Incognito” is performed on a stark, round platform), nor distinct costume or lighting changes.
Here’s some of what plays out: Einstein dies, and pathologist Tom (Spector) absconds with his brain, only later convincing the scientist’s son and executor to let him keep it for study (something along these lines indeed happened).
Tom’s wife (Carr) grows tired with his obsession, tossing him out -- and into the arms of a waitress (Lind) in his native Kansas. Years later, a smarmy reporter (Cox) convinces Tom to take a portion of the brain to a woman who has been reared as Einstein’s granddaughter (Carr, again), but who may really be his daughter.
Meanwhile, Henry (Cox, once more) is in a sanatorium, and we learn that wife Margaret (Lind, in the most endearing of her four roles) married him, despite his severe epilepsy. Henry’s doctor (Spector … keeping up?) helps the man’s wife try to prod him into remembering things, such as how to play the piano.
Margaret goes away to have their baby, but dies in childbirth, and the resulting daughter later has a child named Martha (hi, Geneva!) who grows up to be a London neuropsychologist … divorced and with a grown son (Cox), and beginning a tentative lesbian relationship with a recently unemployed lawyer (that’s … Lind).
Einstein’s pickled hippocampus makes a cameo.
Payne ties things together by the end, and the fragmentary episodes emphasize the point that “the self” is not a unified entity. But the play’s notice-me structure also tends to pull attention away from the primary theme he’s exploring: namely, that trying to figure out how the mind works just by slicing it up is a pointless endeavor.
Scenes that clicked most were incidental to main proceedings: Lind’s quirky waitress, reciting side dishes like some seductive spirit; an interlude between Carr and Cox, as mother and son, doing what is clearly a recurring dance of exasperation when she shows up on his doorstep, drunk.
The subjects Payne is toying with should make us feel a sense of wonder, which is lacking here. The play’s three sections—“Encoding,” “Storing” and “Retrieving”—are delineated by interstitial dance sections that, while well-intentioned, ultimately come off as contrived.
“Incognito,” through June 26 at MTC’s Stage I at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Tickets: $90 and up. Call 212-581-1212.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn