When Albert Einstein died of a brain aneurysm at Princeton Hospital in 1955, the pathologist who performed the autopsy ended up stealing Einstein’s brain. The physicist had left specific instructions for his remains to be cremated, and they were, except for his eyes and his brain. Dr. Thomas Harvey eventually got a retroactive blessing from Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, to conduct tests solely in the interest of science. Harvey cut the brain into 240 pieces and preserved it as he moved around the country. True story. Also true is the tragic story of Henry Molaison who, in 1953 at the age of 27, had surgery that excised small sections of his brain to provide relief from debilitating epileptic seizures. It did decrease his seizures but he was unable to form new memories. British playwright Nick Payne combined those two stories along with one he fabricated in his play Incognito, being given a production currently by Son of Semele Ensemble.
A cast of four talented actors, on stage for the entire 90-minute running time, play 21 different characters under the disciplined direction of Don Boughton. In scenes in which they do not participate, the actors blend into Mark Kanieff’s simple set design, becoming another part of the background. Alex Wells plays pathologist Thomas. His excitement over keeping Einstein’s brain in his cellar or the trunk of his car is exceeded only by the enthusiasm his wife Elouise (Debba Rofheart) displays at first. However Elouise soon sours on the brain, initiating a divorce and causing Thomas to begin his odyssey. Rofheart also plays Evelyn Einstein, thought to be the physicist’s granddaughter but in reality might be his daughter. An ambitious reporter (Dan Via) encourages a DNA test of the brain to find out. Via also plays Henry whose every encounter with his wife Margaret (Sarah Rosenberg) and his doctor (Wells) is a brand new experience. Rofheart also plays Brenda, a neuropsychologist with unknown ties to Henry, who after a long marriage and a grown son, is embarking on her first lesbian relationship.
Though Boughton’s direction and the light and sound cues, by Brandon Baruch and James Ferrero, respectively, give the audience notice of scene changes, Payne’s fractured and often repetitive storytelling plus a time frame covering 1953 to 2015 in various locales, rob the piece of any real feelings. The final blackout should pack an emotional wallop but it fails to do so because Payne has not given his characters enough space to breathe on their own. They are more ideas than people. Payne’s Incognito may be about the brain and memory, but it lacks the heart and the passion to make it memorable.
Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles. Ends April 7. www.sonofsemele.org