The cast of Constellation’s transatlantic mystery Incognito (★★★☆☆) enter dancing — or, rather, they enter arranging themselves into dancerly poses around an elegantly minimal set. The effect definitely is mystifying, if awkward-looking, whatever impact is intended by director Allison Arkell Stockman and movement director Emma Jaster.
The brief movement prelude to this intricate puzzle of interconnecting stories, written by Nick Payne, makes for a shaky start in a production that, at times, seems taxed by the effort to tie together the play’s disparate threads and timelines.
The four-person ensemble, playing 20 characters total, perform admirably in distinguishing the main figures featured, including Dr. Harvey (Marcus Kyd), a New Jersey pathologist who shocks his wife Eloise (Kari Ginsburg) by bringing home the brain of his latest autopsy subject, recently deceased Princeton professor Albert Einstein, in the trunk of his car.
Based on the actual pathologist who performed Einstein’s autopsy then secreted the brain away in order to study it for physiological signs of genius, Harvey risks his career for science, on the chance he won’t be sued or arrested. His and Eloise’s story winds through not only that intrigue, but a touching domestic drama that elicits an affecting portrayal from Ginsburg and Kyd.
Throughout, Ginsburg excels at adding light comic touches, particularly opposite Gerrad Alex Taylor playing Einstein’s son Hans Albert, whom Harvey and Eloise host for dinner in the hopes he’ll grant Harvey permission to hold onto the brain. Taylor inhabits the German-accented engineer with a nod and a wink that suits the adventurous spirit of the story and direction.
Taylor shifts smoothly into a more poignant mode playing Henry, a musician and seizure patient suffering severe long-term memory loss. Likewise based on a real-life case, Henry even forgets that he forgets, and every day, when his devoted girlfriend Margaret (Ixchel Hernández) comes to visit him in the hospital, he greets her as if she’s never been to see him. They enact a devastating loop of joy and heartbreak that Taylor endows with fresh pain and realization every time.
In the third of these parallel plotlines, Ginsburg logs another engaging turn as Martha, a clinical neuropsychologist who embarks on a new-for-her lesbian romance with Patricia (Hernández). Martha’s also drawn into a journey of self-discovery that promises to change her life, and bridges her narrative to the other stories.
Payne, Tony-nominated for the 2019 play A Life, plants clues to potential connections between the different threads and characters, but it’s up to the company to maintain our understanding of which story we’re seeing, and which characters we’re following as scenes jump between different eras and locations. We’re dropped into scenes where the dialogue doesn’t always instantly orient us as to who we’re watching.
The actors juggle accents, some better than others, but don’t get outside help from hair and makeup, costume, or set design to accentuate characters. As they move about scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’ strikingly good-looking stage — set with lucite benches and boxes lit from within, and murmurations of starlings painted on the walls — they could be anywhere or nowhere. They apparently occupy the nebulous space where these stories connect, and mysteries of the brain and history give way to truth and knowledge.
Incognito poses a jumbled puzzle, marked by a few rough transitions, but it does eventually provide the pleasure of those connections clicking into place.
Incognito runs through March 12 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, with a Black Out Night performance on Feb. 25, a Pride Night performance on March 3, and Zennial Night Sunday on March 4. Tickets are $20 to $55. Call 202-204-7741, or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.
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