Those who saw playwright Nick Payne’s Constellations this season at Florida Studio Theatre are already familiar with his ability to couple interesting, worth-talking-about ideas with stories and people that also engage the heart. He does it again with the Urbanite Theatre season opener, Incognito, which blends multiple storylines while pondering issues of memory, the brain, and what makes us what we are.
Audience members may find it a little confusing at first, as the play switches back and forth between British and American characters living in different places and times. Chief among them are a pathologist named Thomas Harvey (Matt Crabtree), a real-life doctor who “stole” the brain of the late Albert Einstein in order to study it; another real person, Henry (Brendan Ragan), whose epileptic seizures led to having part of his brain removed, which in turn led to enduring short-term memory loss; Henry’s loving but frustrated wife Margaret (Brooke Tyler Benson); and neuroscientist Martha (Sunny Smith), nervously embarking on her first relationship with a woman.
The four actors onstage play a number of other roles, too, and under the well-timed and nuanced direction of Daniel Kelly they’re able to make us laugh (as when the obsessed Dr. Harvey finds himself explaining his scientific mission to some skeptical stoners in Kansas) and perhaps cry (as when we see the polite, aging Henry trying to remember any of the people he’s met repeatedly over the years of his institutionalization).
There are also plot threads involving a reporter and Einstein’s supposed daughter/granddaughter, also played by Smith; a wife killer (Crabtree) who can’t remember committing the crime; and briefly, the adult son from Martha’s former marriage. On a bare set populated only by stools and an ancient piano adorned with old photos and memorabilia, the actors—and Payne’s often ingenious writing—take us on a journey that asks us to marvel a bit at the wonders—and limits—of the human brain, and to consider from where our sense of self really derives.
Incognito continues through July 8 at Urbanite; for tickets call 321-1397 or visit urbanitetheatre.com.