In something of a coup, Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of Nick Payne’s Incognito, an ambitious and often-engrossing play of ideas. Not unlike Tom Stoppard, Payne has a knack for conveying complex scientific and philosophical concepts in theatrical terms. His drama Constellations, which recently ran at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, combined that headiness with a strong emotional pull.
With Incognito, the pleasures are pretty much confined to the intellectual realm — which is perhaps understandable, given that its subject is the brain. Payne weaves together three stories, each of which involves the mysteries of the mind. One concerns Thomas Harvey (Joseph Fuqua), the pathologist who, after conducting an autopsy on Albert Einstein, made off with the scientist’s brain. Increasingly unstable, he studied it over the next four decades but never published a single result.
The second story — also loosely based on fact, and by far the most involving of the three — focuses on Henry Maison (Mark Jacobson), a British man who lost his short-term memory after a botched surgery to control his epilepsy. The third features Martha Murphy (Betsy Zajko), a clinical neuropsychologist with a drinking problem; her main function in the play is to cogently explain some contemporary concepts of brain science and their wide-ranging implications.
Payne, I think, missed an opportunity in not making one of his stories about old-age dementia, a brain disease many people have firsthand knowledge of and one that might have made his play easier to connect with emotionally. Still, much of this material is fascinating, and as expertly directed by Katharine Farmer, the four actors (Claire Adams rounds out the cast) all do outstanding work. If you have ever pondered whether our memories, and the false sense of identity they create, help or hinder us in reaching our potential, this play is for you.