Portrayals of savants in theater or film are few and far between; the common points of reference are usually the Oscar-winning turns of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Cliff Robertson in “Charley.” These two touchstones, though, offer opposing portraits of an extraordinary mind: “Rain Man” focuses on the impact of a savant on the people around him, while “Charley” attempts to get inside the mind of the man himself.
“The Mnemonist of Dutchess County,” a new play by Josh Koenigsberg (“Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis”), attempts to do both, an overreach that hampers an otherwise sweet, light production. Dr. Hulie (Brit Whittle), a psychiatrist and college professor, is debating the subject of his next book proposal when he meets Milo (Henry Vick), a socially awkward young man with an astounding memory. Textbooks, encyclopedias, entire conversations: Milo, a synesthete, uses associations with colors, textures, and images as mnemonics to remember them all verbatim.
Milo’s character is based on a real case study: that of Solomon Shereshevsky, a Russian journalist, whose remarkable memory was due to synthesthesia that was diagnosed late in life. Although he could memorize a deck of cards in seconds, Shereshevsky had an average IQ and had trouble recognizing faces. Milo, despite his mental agility, is similarly troubled by the problems of the everyday. Laid off from his job for not taking notes (why would he need them?), his attentions are focused on Gina (a wonderful Ava Eisenson), the owner of a local bar, whose thoughts about Milo seem destined to remain strictly platonic.
The press release for “The Mnemonist of Dutchess County” calls it a “bittersweet comedy,” but Laura Savia’s brisk direction steers too near the sweet and too clear of the bitter. The two-hour production zips along pleasantly, with a clever set by Julia Noulin Mérat and some Dutchess County local color provided by a boisterous Aaron Costa Ganis as the working-class Tito, Gina’s lover, who sees Milo as an opportunity to make a buck. With significant swagger and some enviable freestyle skills, Ganis emcees the act that Milo puts on for local college students, a sidestep into sideshow that is one of the high points of the production. His eagerness and affability are undeniable, but they—along with a shrill psych student (Jessica Varley)—overshadow the play’s quieter moments. When Einsenson halts the show’s rapid progress with a soft meditation on isolation, it’s hard to see where it came from.
It’s an awkward imbalance for a play that entertains broader questions. Do Milo’s extraordinary abilities make him unable to connect with another person? Or do they allow him to feel more, heightening his sensory experience in a way that those around him can’t imagine? Is such a memory a gift? Or does it make impossible what we sometimes want to do—just forget? If Koenigsberg has the answers, they’re buried too deep under cheap gags and verbal clichés to be remembered.
Presented by the Attic Theater Company at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Feb. 13–March 2. (212) 239-6200, (800) 447-7400, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Lexie Pregosin.
Critic’s Score: B-