Nick Payne’s Constellations, (on Broadway in 2015), poetically explored The String Theory of Quantum Physics: In layman’s terms, what happens to everything else when a single aspect of a scenario changes and is it happening simultaneously on another plane? The play’s program specified “Place: The Multiverse” = the juncture? of multiple universes. Still fascinated with questions of free will, time, memory, and the way we function, the prolific playwright/intellectual here takes the human brain as its subject. One again drama is the medium.
Four excellent actors: Geveva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector play a multitude of characters including psychologists, scientists, patients, a lawyer, a journalist…with turn-on-a-dime American and British accents. The piece, like its predecessor, is episodic, here broken into three larger chapters: ENCODING, STORING, and RETRIEVING, each begun with robotic voguing (by Peter Pucci) and a walk around the circular staging area accompanied by spacey electronic sounds/music. (David Van Tieghem) It’s a kind of a human rondo.
Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr
Identifiable stories play through in fragments. When Albert Einstein died, Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey, conducting his autopsy (Morgan Spector), had a carpe diem moment and, turning to the icon’s executor, asked whether he might take the brain…which ends up in the trunk of his car before being dissected and studied…to little avail.
Martha (Geneva Carr, whose natural stage presence allows her to morph with focus), the adopted granddaughter of Einstein’s son and a clinical neuropsychologist, is approached by self-serving journalist, Michael (Charlie Cox) with questions of her paternity. Might she, in fact, be Einstein’s illicit daughter? (Not so far-fetched based on evidence.) All she has to do is take a DNA sample from Einstein’s brain to find out. That is, when Michael tracks it down.
Heather Lind, Geneva Carr
The intrepid headline hound convinces Doctor Harvey to accompany him cross country with a piece of the brain in order to see Einstein’s daughter –no love lost there – Evelyn (Carr), and request that sample. They drive. (How is one to airline check a brain fragment?)
Martha is, for the first time, exploring a gay relationship with Patricia (Heather Lind with a butch persona), also an adopted child, who would like her to help a lawyer friend (Spector) with professional testimony in a murder trial.
Anthony (a credibly on-the-verge Spector) is in and out of therapy (including with a compassionate but helpless Martha) and on Dagwood combinations of medication… rendering him impotent. About to embark on his honeymoon, he stops his meds, is fine for several days, then strangles his new bride to death, remembering nothing.
Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Henry’s (a wonderfully innocent and touching Charlie Cox) amnesiac brain is poorly wired, though whether before or after an operation is unclear. His attention span is three to four thoughts, then everything starts fresh. The patient’s fiancé Margaret (Heather Lind) tries patiently (and palpably) to help, especially wanting him to regain his music, but gives up in despair. Doctors change over time…until Martha appears, triggering a moment of clarity/progress or, perhaps, just in the right place at the right time.
I’m sure I’ve left people and connections out. All four actors are top notch, but this is an impressionistic piece. Emotions are felt only in passing except perhaps those provoked by Henry who appears throughout. The mechanism we call brain retains its secrets.
Director Doug Hughes brings what humanity he can to the passing parade, keeps things moving and characters from becoming static.
Ben Stanton’s Lighting, Scott Pask’s minimal Set and Catherine Zuber’s grey-tone costumes collectively create an ephemeral canvas.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Geneva Carr (back), Morgan Spector, Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Incognito by Nick Payne
Directed by Doug Hughes
City Center Stage 1
151 West 55th Street
Through July 10, 2016
Darja (Marin Ireland) and Tommy (Morgan Spector) are having a heated argument at a bleak, highway bus stop in New Jersey. She’s a volatile Polish immigrant in her early forties with a decided accent (wonderfully executed) who works in a factory and cleaning houses. He’s a slightly younger, loosely wound, American postal worker with a tattoo on his leg.
Tommy is Darja’s third formal liaison after a first husband with whom she came to the states and a second who physically abused her. They’ve been together six years. Twenty-two year-old son, Alex, who has a serious drug addiction, has disappeared from home. The need to find him is eating his mother alive. Though this argument is provoked by that anxiety, it centers on Tommy’s infidelity. He’s been bedding a rich Montclair woman whose house Darja cleans.
Morgan Spector and Marin Ireland
“…What you gotta understand is that people fuck up…if you wanna classify me for one little…” Tommy protests, adding Darja knows he has trouble being alone. (She often works late.) The one little turns out to be at least 14 meetings over several years – and there were other women. She’s figured out his password and tapped his iPhone “There’s an app.”
Rage has blinded neither Darja’s independence nor her survival skills. She wants to know how much money Tommy will give her to stay. He thinks he rescued her. She feels she’s slaving for him and points out that his mistress sees him as a toy. They negotiate. She wants at least enough money for a car. He rationalizes “support,” then withdraws at further vitriol. “Get in the car!” Blackout.
Josiah Bania and Marin Ireland
From here, we open on the bus stop 22 years before. The play unfolds episodically back and forth from past to present. Though it takes a few minutes to get one’s bearing at the first shift in time, the story then flows with clarity. We’re always on the highway between Elizabeth and Newark. Limbo.
Darja and her first husband, Maks (Josiah Bania), are at insurmountable odds about his starry-eyed dream to go to Chicago and play blues. Still suffering from the first uprooting, she wants to stay where they both have jobs and things are secure. They argue about the importance of money above all else. Darja is pregnant, but doesn’t tell her husband. Clearly in love, the couple reluctantly part. Sensitively written and gently enacted.
Shiloh Fernandez and Marin Ireland
We never meet husband number two, formerly Darja’s boss at the factory, but one scene during that marriage finds her huddling against the night cold with a whopper of a black eye afraid to return home. She’s discovered by male prostitute Vic (Shiloh Fernandez), who looks and talks like a street thug, but is, in fact, just the opposite. This parenthesis is like watching Androcles and the Lion. Darja is skittish, suspicious. Vic is sweet and solicitous. Their eventual accommodation to each other is palpably genuine.
Polish to English syntax is pitch perfect. The heroine’s relationships with Maks and Tommy couldn’t be more different, yet both are filled with specifics that make them feel authentic. Darja knows nothing but poverty and struggle. Sometimes she steals a little something from a client. Men have been unreliable, cruel. Life centers around getting through each day and doing what she can for her son. She clearly cares for Tommy, but there’s an acknowledged mutual “using” present as well. They part. Will they reunite…when circumstances change?
This is a tough, tightly written, visceral play, yet it contains both tenderness and humor.
Marin Ireland and Morgan Spector
Morgan Spector (Tommy), as what we used to call a “big lug,” embodies an unworldly innocence that’s no match for the clever Darja. The actor is thoroughly grounded. Blow-ups come from the gut. A passage where he thinks he sees a different future for himself is touching, not cloying.
Josiah Bania plays Maks as a loving man with a dream that simply won’t be denied. Bania both speaks excellent Polish (is he of that nationality?) and plays outstanding mouth organ. Quite a casting feat. He’s unmistakably playful, tender, and resolved.
As Vic, Shiloh Fernandez so completely epitomizes a backstreet gang member, we’re thoroughly surprised when he turns out to be otherwise. Fernandez walks a fine line between the boy’s assumed persona and his sincerity with great finesse.
Marin Ireland is simply wonderful. There isn’t a crack in the fully formed woman she inhabits. Steely, plotting, desperate, proud, stubborn, and at least, at one point, in love, we see her viscerally fighting to endure. Though the experience may be foreign, Ireland offers affecting touch points at every turn.
Direction by Daniella Topol is both pithy and nuanced.
Justin Townsend’s Scenic Design couldn’t be aptly colder or more minimal.
Kaye Voyce’s Costumes add immeasurably to character definition.
Photos by Sandra Coudert
Opening: Marin Ireland
Ironbound by Martyna Majok
Directed by Daniella Topol
Featuring: Josiah Bania, Shiloh Fernandez, Marin Ireland, Morgan Spector
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Co-Production with Women’s Project Theater
224 Waverly Place
Through April 10, 2016