The Mnemonist of Dutchess County
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2013
Brad Whittle, Jessica Varley, and Henry Vick in a scene from The Mnemonist of Dutchess County | Natalee Ranii-Dropcho
Milo Mazowski is a mnemonist: he can recall virtually anything he reads or hears with perfect accuracy. This ability has made it hard for him to lead the kind of life that most of us would call "normal," however, for he doesn't censor and often doesn't anticipate or understand the consequences of repeating verbatim what someone said or did five minutes ago or five years ago. At the beginning of The Mnemonist of Dutchess County, Josh Koenigsberg's play about Milo, he has just been fired from his job as a campus security guard (at an upscale college located along the Hudson River in upstate New York) because he never takes notes at staff meetings.
Milo hangs out at a local bar called the Blind Eagle, which is run by Gina, sister of Milo's best (only) pal at his (ex) job. In fact, Milo has a crush on Gina, which she is probably aware of but, because she's aware of Milo's limitations, she mostly gently ignores. Gina's boyfriend is Tito, who is also the bar's bouncer—he's undereducated and a little dim but very shrewd, a master manipulator who keeps his position professionally and personally through bravado and charm. Sure, he does deal drugs and sometimes forgets to check ids; but there's something lovable about this guy.
The play details the ways that Milo's life changes when two important things happen to him. First, Gina's brother Joey takes him to see Dr. Hulie, a psychology professor at the college, who immediately signs Milo on as a case study for a book he will write about Milo's unusual neurological condition. (In exchange, the prof is supposed to teach Milo to behave in more socially acceptable ways.) And second, Tito signs himself on as Milo's manager, launching him on a career as a professional mnemonist, performing memory tricks for audiences (think "Mr. Memory" in The 39 Steps).
Dr. Hulie's research assistant, an ambitious but insecure young woman named Samantha, twice becomes the unwitting victim of Milo's gift of perfect recall. But Koenigsberg's script doesn't focus that much on her story (except as it catalyzes the rest of the plot) or even on Milo's work with the professor. (I wanted him to; for me, this part of the play was the most intriguing.) Instead, Mnemonist is mostly about Milo's relationships with Gina and Tito, and in fact Tito's arc made me feel like he was the protagonist of the play more than Milo.
The script is funny at times, but more often it's serious and even a bit intense: one of Koenigsberg's concerns as a playwright is the clash between people of different economic status, and in Hulie and Samantha on the one hand and the rest of the play's characters on the other, he's able to consider class and its consequences in 21st century America in some detail.
This production is directed by Laura Savia and presented by The Attic Theater Company, with Henry Vick's rich, warm, human performance as Milo and Jessica Varley's layered, complex portrayal of the troubled Samantha the highlights. There are missteps, though: the set by Julia Noulin-Merat places the professor's office in the middle of the stage, surrounded by an expansive depiction of the Blind Eagle on either side; it's an odd use of the space (why not just split the stage into two set areas?) that distorts our view of what ought to be a friendly neighborhood saloon. And three scenes involving audience interaction (where Milo performs his "memory act") didn't live up to their promise of fun at the performance attended.
All that said, the ideas behind The Mnemonist of Dutchess County are fascinating and the play certainly represents an interesting new direction in Koenigsberg's still developing journey as a playwright.