Here's a tip: Be sure to read director Alex Organ's program note before, and not after, experiencing Incognito at Second Thought Theatre.
Playwright Nick Payne delights in twisty, confusing structures, and he's even more in his element in this non-linear play about memory and the dark mysteries of the brain.
Amelia Branksy has crafted a delicately beautiful set that's eerily lit by Aaron Johansen, with row after row and jar after jar of "brains" (actually cleverly crumpled music sheets) surrounding the four actors who play 20 distinct characters in a whirlwind 95 minutes.
There's also a focal-point piano, which the characters are drawn to in various scenarios. As Organ's note explains, the play's structure follows three timelines in a continuous sequence, often requiring the actors to switch ages, eras, and relationships in a single beat that's accented by sound designer Andrea Allmond.
In one timeline, the based-on-real-life Thomas Harvey (played with milquetoast acceptance by Thomas Ward) is tasked with performing the autopsy on Albert Einstein and — oops! — somehow ends up with the famous professor's brain in his car's trunk. He wishes to dissect the organ and see if genius is a physical trait, but his risky experiment brings about more trouble than he anticipated.
History influences the second timeline as well, with a landmark brain surgery that's intended to cure a young man's epileptic seizures but leaves him unable to retain short-term memories instead. The always solid Drew Wall is the afflicted Henry, both looking forward to a promising future with his new fiancee and living out his mentally foggy days in a medical institution. At both ages he's devoted to his Margaret (DFW newcomer and one-to-watch Natalie Herbert), though she grows increasingly frustrated by her husband's cyclical world.
The third timeline concentrates on Martha (a tightly coiled Shannon McGrann), a neuropsychologist who is trapped in her own patterns of self-destruction and cynicism — until she meets the captivating Patricia (Herbert again, sporting an already iconic pair of striped trousers from costume designer Melissa Panzarello). It's this narrative that most heavily reflects the play's title, as Martha is unable to shed the protective identities she's crafted for herself and be completely honest in her new romance.
Payne is purposefully against audience hand-holding, and it's to Organ's credit that this time-jumping, character-shifting story doesn't simply collapse in on itself in confusion. It also probably helps that Organ starred in another of Payne's works, Constellations, three years ago at Dallas Theater Center, giving him a familiarity with the writer's rhythm and quirks. But as hard as you, the audience, is tasked with working, the cast is working harder, and the results are enigmatically lovely.
Second Thought Theatre's production of Incognito runs through February 23 at Bryant Hall.