Henry Vick and Aaron Costa Ganis in a scene from
The Mnemonist of Dutchess County
(Photo credit: Natalee Ranii-Dropcho)
Probably not secure that we all know what a mnemonist is, playwright Josh Koenigsberg is kind enough to include an anecdote at the top of his play’s program about an extraordinary individual, Solomon Shereshevsky. He was not only a mnemonist but a professional mnemonist. He toured theaters, concert halls, auditoria performing incredible feats of memory. Such an extraordinary feat is at the core of Koenigsberg’s play. A case study was published in 1968 by Dr. A. R. Lucia after thirty years researching Shereshevsky and his fascinating career.
Psychologist Dr. Hulie (Brit Whittle) is being harassed, plagued, conned by the teary, whiny, pushy prodding of his student, Samantha (Jessica Varley), vastly dissatisfied with her grade, when, suddenly, her remonstrances are cut short as Joey (Malcolm Madera) bursts out of the doctor’s bathroom where his buddy Milo is being sick. Milo has been fired from his job as a security officer for not taking notes. Milo has neglected to explain that he cannot help remembering everything so what is the point, although his crossed up senses also make him uncontrollably nauseous. And that’s why Joey wants the shrink to help his friend. Milo (Henry Vick) emerges, large and smiling as Samantha goes right on harassing the doctor. When Milo corrects Samantha and quotes her verbatim, that gets everyone’s attention. Dr. Hulie happily sees Milo as not only a new patient, but as a new case study and, oh boy, as the subject of a new book.
Meanwhile, back in Milo and Joey’s favorite hangout, Gina’s tawdry bar, which scenic designer Julia Noulin-Mérat has wrapped around the doctor’s office, tiny, sexy proprietor Gina (Ava Eisenson) lets her bouncer, Tito (Aaron Costa Ganis) have it with both barrels. He’s goofed up once too often. Again. Tito agrees with everything Gina, his girlfriend – he thinks – says, turning on his all too easy charm, but the con is not working. Joey and Milo beguile her with news of Milo’s new shrink. Gina is not beguiled. All the men are focused on Gina, especially big, innocent Milo. She knows it. But Tito, always looking for the odd chance, wonders why the doctor isn’t paying Milo for his work in the book deal. Or why Milo isn’t making some bucks from his memory tricks. He inveigles Milo into performing: they’ll split the money 60-40. He gets 60; he thought up the act. Joey fumes.
What is truly astonishing, however, is Milo’s performance. Tito hands Milo a deck of shuffled cards. Milo scans them all, then Tito shows them one at a time to us, the audience. We have become part of the play. Milo cannot see the cards. He gets every single one right. How? Is this acting? Or mnemonics? Is actor Henry Vick – Milo – a mnemonist? This is a complete distraction in the trajectory of the play and yet it is essential. Milo, the character, becomes completely convincing, and yet, unfortunately, a clear distraction. We have been absorbed in a well-made play with excellent performances and responding to them when suddenly, one performance grabs us with its extra dimension, the appearance of true mnemonics. We cannot slip back into viewing the play that easily, we’re too busy saying to ourselves, “How did he do that?” And yet, there’s no doubt, it is part of Koenigsberg’s play. Director Laura Savia has stumbled.
Yes, Vick as Milo is simply astonishing, Ava Eisenson’s Gina is nuanced and vulnerable, Malcolm Madera finds the complications in Joey splendidly; Aaron Costa Ganis is a stand out, sleazy and charming; Brit Whittle’s doctor is recognizably human. I would hope that Jessica Varley as Samantha develops her performance to reach everyone. But there’s that great, big elephant reared up, got us all agog and we can’t get over it when the clowns return because it’s all part of the show. Come see the mnemonist. Or the play. Or both. You’ll find yourself thinking about it on the way home.
The Mnemonist of Dutchess County (through March 2)
The Attic Theater Company at Beckett Theater @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com