by Brian Scott Lipton
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” That quote by Albert Einstein shows up in Nick Payne’s fascinating, dense new 85-minute work Incognito at Manhattan Theatre Club. But I doubt the characters—who include some of Einstein’s relatives and Dr. Thomas Harvey, the New Jersey pathologist who literally stole Einstein’s brain upon his death—would agree.
In fact, the majority of the 20 people we meet—stunningly embodied by Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector—spend years, if not decades, of their lives searching for knowledge, primarily answers about each other and, more importantly, themselves. Some find out more than others: a few get relief, a few get disappointment, and some are destined to never really gain that elusive knowledge. And some, as it happens, are actually better off living in a world of imagination, immune from the harsh truth of their true circumstances.
Some audience members may sense from the beginning that the various stories told here, mostly through shortish, alternating, and sometimes unnecessarily repetitive scenes, are interconnected in some way—and they’d be right. But it’s hard for even the savviest theatergoer to connect all the dots. As for the veracity of the tales that unfold before us, Payne lets us know in a program note that the play is “based, albeit very loosely, on several true stories” and lists nearly a dozen books that inspired the piece.
Unlike many MTC shows, Incognito has been staged on a stark, practically empty set (by Scott Pask). Yet, the absence of furniture (save a few chairs) is barely bothersome, thanks to the surprising fluidity with which director Doug Hughes imbues his staging, and the incredibly committed work of the four-person cast.
British film and TV star Cox (star of the Netflix series Daredevil) brings a boyish charm that serves him best in his main role, Henry Maison, a man prone to seizures and who remembers almost nothing from one day to the next. The actor’s facility with both American and German accents is impressive; and if he’s a little less believable portraying some of the harder-edged characters, he’s always watchable. Spector is properly arrogant as Harvey, who seems unaware of the larger consequences of his actions, and does nicely as two of Henry’s very patient doctors.
But it’s the women who make the strongest impression here. Carr (a Tony Award nominee for Hand to God) is magnificent as Martha Murphy, a brilliant, seemingly cool-headed neuropsychologist uneasily dealing with a fondness for alcohol and her first lesbian relationship after more than 20 years of heterosexual marriage. She’s equally fine in a number of smaller turns, including Harvey’s loving-then-angry wife Eloise. And Lind brings genuine pathos tinged with surprising strength to her main roles as Henry’s wife, Margaret, and Martha’s lover, Patricia, an unemployed lawyer.
Intriguingly, you may leave Incognito with more questions than you came in with – not about the play, but about the person sitting next to you, or your own inner being. In a world where we consume too many empty calories, it’s satisfying to lap up some brain food.
Incognito. Through June 26 at Manhattan Theatre Club-Stage 1 at City Center (131 West 55th Street). Tickets are available by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212 or online by visiting www.nycitycenter.org
Photos: Joan Marcus