At the end of “Incognito,” a new play by Nick Payne (“Constellations”) at Manhattan Theater Club, one line of dialogue jumps out: “There is nothing whatsoever remarkable about Albie’s [i.e., Albert Einstein’s] brain.” Had they but told us that at the outset of this pseudo-scientific treatment of that very subject, we might have been spared sitting through a dull play about earthbound people who devoutly wish they had a piece of the intellectual power of a genius.
Director Doug Hughes (“The Father”) and movement director Peter Pucci run themselves ragged moving 20 lifeless characters (played by four hard-working actors) around the spare stage handsomely set by Scott Pask and lighted by Ben Stanton. But for all that work, Payne’s treatment of his philosophical subject remains leaden in theatrical form.
Although it dabbles in probability theory, this inert drama is quite unlike the writer’s charming two-hander, “Constellations,” which tested the boundaries of the time-space continuum by exploring the romance of a couple destined to meet and (possibly) fall in love. Here, the only thing being tested is the audience’s ability to chase shadows on the walls of a cave.
The British playwright has sourced his material from the actual story of how Einstein’s brain was stolen by the unhinged pathologist who performed the autopsy on his body. After giving himself permission to carry off this audacious theft, Thomas Harvey (Morgan Spector) tucks Einstein’s brain into the trunk of his car and drives it home to take up residence in his basement. For a while, the doctor is content to examine his trophy in private. The problems start when he dissects the brain into bite-sized specimens and disseminates them far and wide.
But “Incognito” (however that title is supposed to apply here) is not the screwball comedy it sounds like. The playwright, who is entirely without humor, is genuinely interested in the brain as brain — how it gets its wires crossed and allows a man to murder his wife. Or how it misfires in someone like Henry (Charlie Cox, whose smile can break your heart), who suffers from Grand Mal brain seizures.
Whatever emotion might be squeezed out of this dry piece can be found in the bittersweet scenes in which Henry, who is in no way in touch with reality, manages to retain the memory of his love for his wife, whom he sees in the various caretakers tenderly played by Heather Lind. And whatever resolution is delivered at the end of the play, it’s relief at hearing that Dr. Harvey has thrown himself off Blackfriars Bridge.