Without bringing it square and center in his latest work The Neurology of the Soul, a must-see currently at A.R.T., playwright Edward Einhorn thematically relays what Tom Stoppard focused on in his work about neuroscience’s inability to deal with consciousness in The Hard Problem. Indeed, in The Neurology of the Soul Einhorn’s presents a neuroscientist’s search to empirically measure consciousness (love) with brain scans. Einhorn also directs this exceptional play which delivers humor, boundless verve and exciting ideas that on closer inspection are concerning.
Why are neuroscientists, marketers and art gallery owners (representatives of whom Einhorn acquaints us with in the play) assiduously and feverishly working to find the next great “discovery?” The profit motive in all of its sinister, opaque, nullifying effects which bind us to cultural norms that are often destructive to our souls. With an intriguing backdrop linking neuroscience, art, marketing/branding and human relationships, Einhorn raises questions about ethics and justice in his beautifully constructed, dynamic and mind-blowing work.
This is Einhorn’s newest play and it is as trenchant as much of his earlier work, perhaps even more so. For by identifying a loving couple’s relationship in the petri dish of our time, then agitating it with other individuals and circumstances, he explores the hideaway crevasses of the human spirit and soul. And he reveals how ultimately, consciousness and feelings of love are beyond the kin of empiricism (quantifiable, material data production) which science clings to with ferocity and an almost paranoid, discriminatory blindness. His exploration is at once humorous and frightening, if one considers the implications of what the art world, marketing and neuroscientists may intend. Each have their own siren songs which Einhorn gently presents to allow us to form our own conclusions. And even if the results are unsettling and uncertain, indeed the considerations are limitless and fascinating. Above all, his play alerts us to be on guard.
Stephen (a superbly developed performance by Matthew Trumbull) a cognitive neuroscientist, works for a university as a researcher. He is obsessed with attempting to chart consciousness, specifically the emotions of love. He is using brain scans (fMRI) to do so. That he employs his wife Amy (Ashley Griffin is equally brilliant in the give and take with Trumbull) as his research subject to gauge her reactions and brain responses to his expressions of love, appears sweet. On deeper inspection, Matthew’s Stephen remains removed and aloof as a researcher in the lab. And hearing his “matter-of-fact” atonal love expressions is humorous. It is antithetical to any expression of emotional love and desire which might arise during the normal course of two people interacting in a more intimate setting. (How Einhorn evolves this character and shepherds Trumbull’s adroit, incisive acting skills to bring him to surprising emotionalism is fabulous! Bravo to both!)
Amy, a “failed” artist who signs on for the experiment, for she, too, wants to see how “love” lights up her brain, at the outset appears to be the more sensitive of the two. As Stephen gauges her responses, Amy speaks her feelings and thoughts to the audience and engages us as her confidante. She remains the impassive subject on a research table. We and Stephen can view her on a television screen and Stephen charts her brain responses. Nevertheless, she is two people: the interior and the exterior. For during the scene, when Stephen speaks love phrases to her, Amy’s interior feelings (which she relates to us) and thoughts are very active. Indeed, they are not about him or her love for him, but about the process of being “a subject.”
Einhorn’s having Amy speak to the audience is intriguing. Is this foreshadowing how from the outset, the scientific mapping is not only primitive, but is most probably heading in the direction of a complete disconnect? Einhorn surreptitiously sneaks in through Amy’s address/aside to the the audience (a dramatic technique with more than a typically Shakespearean purpose) that the human being is not a machine easily measurable. Nor is a human being easily controllable, manipulated, or understood. Her thoughts are unseen to Stephen, but revealed to us as she flashes back to a time when she modeled nude for art classes. This “disconnect,” is at the crux of the play and provides the action that propels it to the climax (when Amy and Stephen “scream” in recognition of their hurt and what they fear they have lost).
Increasingly, during Stephen’s experimentation of charting love, his love relationship with Amy is impacted. The observation of their love strangely changes it, recalling to mind the “observer effect” in Physics; the observation of a situation or phenomenon impacts and changes it.
Immediately, in the next segment Einhorn introduces Mark, the head of a neuromarketing firm who speaks before a “Digital Leadership Convention.” As Mark, Mick O’Brien is frighteningly believable as the narcissist with an overweening ego convinced of his own perfection and the justice of brainwashing people whom he uses for his own agenda. With clips of older TV advertisements, Mark convinces us how facile it is to manipulate consumers to buy product. Mark brilliantly persuades his audience (us) in the direction of using the expertise of his neuromarketing firm for whatever purpose, for example, selling product or something else. As Mark’s selling segments alternate with the research sessions between Amy and Stephen, the inevitable happens. Mark eventually hires Stephen for a lot of money to conduct research for his firm with the quid pro quo that Stephen can continue his research with Amy.
The delicious irony that Einhorn reveals with Mark’s characterization is that Mark “believes” that by employing visual and aural propaganda and brainwashing techniques, consumers are completely pliable and suggestive. That this is a “belief” or “theory” and not a 100% proven fact is lost on him. There is no uncertainty with him. He is convinced of the reality he creates to lure his listeners (Amy, Stephen, us) and himself.
Though Amy does not trust him initially, Stephen and she relocate to an apartment in New York City. Mark persuades Amy to use her brain scans to create art which will be shown in a gallery he co-owns with his former wife Claire (a fine performance by Yvonne Roen as the congenial art dealer who ameliorates Amy’s misgivings and suspicions about Mark). Altruism doesn’t play into Mark’s “concern” for Amy’s talent or artistry. He convinces her she is lucky meeting him and that his is an opportunity she shouldn’t refuse. When she doesn’t, of course, he profits from the exhibition of her work and insinuates himself into her relationship with Stephen. Additionally, her art and herself become a commodity to be branded and marketed. Amy and her art are objectified, but the price for this process of bringing her brain scans (soul?) into art is worth it she believes. The irony is duly noted and we are reminded that promoters and marketers control how art and people rise and fall as trending commodities.
The inevitable affair does not occur between Mark and Amy; though how this doesn’t occur is as complicated and uncertain as the wind. Stephen in the process of measuring Amy’s scans convinces himself that he sees in her scans a diminishing love response. And this he interprets to mean that she is falling out of love with him. Ultimately, there is a separation of living arrangements. With all this scientific measuring, belief, assumption, and second guesses encroach. It is a great irony of this play that the characters reveal how unobjective and unscientific they are in typical human fashion.
Despite the persuasive talents of Mark who is convinced of his own invincibility, Amy’s love is for one man only. Once more our faith is restored in what is unknowable, unscientific and spiritual (love). Amy’s art does receive an uplift; about that, as Claire suggested, Mark’s invincibility appears to be correct.
The Neurology of the Soul startles, thrills and absolutely shimmers with light. The themes Einhorn suggests are heady and profound. To what extent must we question the ethics about neuroscientific information in the employ of unscrupulous “neuromarketers” like representative Mark? If science captivates human beings’ unconscious proclivities with the intention of handing over the data to corporate entities who will then use it to brainwash social groups to consume their products, shouldn’t this be regulated? What if such data is turned over to digital companies to manipulate individuals to vote a certain way or support a certain political group over others? Isn’t this injudicious? Undemocratic? Should scientific ethics be left to scientists to self-regulate or independent panels of retired scientists? How do scientists regulate themselves to prevent abuses?
Science removed from philosophy and ethics and morality because those are quaint historic notions is a dangerous “science”. Such science is akin to its own philosophy and belief system which then could be used to justify anything. Without moral and ethical considerations, primitive neuroscience is still in its infancy. But what happens if certain emotions and consciousnesses can be mapped? As for now, the mind is unknown. Consciousness is a “hard problem.” And emotions like love, as Einhorn shows by the conclusion of his play, are beyond measure.
Einhorn’s The Neurology of the Soul is incredibly prescient and current. Think of social media’s use of memes, tropes, visuals and hot button rhetoric pegged to unconscious impulses to manipulate with disastrous results, especially when social groups are being targeted. Regulation is an imperative. But what happens when corporates and other leading social actors resist regulation for their own ends?
All of these themes and many more Einhorn sweepingly covers in this incredible and memorable work, made more exceptional with the production team’s artistry. All these listed are well shepherded by Einhorn’s direction. Kudos to Jim Boutin (Set Designer); Magnus Pind Bjerre (Video Designer); Ramona Ponce (Costume Designer); Jeff Nash (Lighting Designer); Sadah Espii Proctor (Sound Designer); Tiffany Lee (Asst. Video); Eric Mueller (Neurosales Logo) and all who contributed their efforts.
The Neurology of the Soul runs with no intermission until 2nd of March at A.R.T. (53rd between 10th and 11th). For tickets to this amazing production go to the website: Click Here.
The FringeNYC Festival shuttered with its last production performances on 28 October: The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley, Edward Einhorn’s take-off on a Bertol Brecht classic served as the festivals’ apt exclamation point. Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Umberto Ui (that Einhorn’s work parallels), satirizes Hitler’s alarming rise to power. Like Brecht Einhorn employs sardonic humor to reveal human avarice and fandom at its worst.
Divergently, Einhorn’s stylistic parody of Brecht’s work uses period music (1900-1920s), with lyrics he wrote to chronicle another incredible “rise.” Notably, the two-act hybrid musical, comedy, satire, absurdist bio-drama characterizes the American Dream, Horatio Alger “rags-to -riches” prototype. However, the prototype is turned on its head in the shape and form of one real-life JR Brinkley. JR’s misplaced ambitions destined him to millionaire stardom and fraudulent bankruptcy. Incalculably, this gentleman (who was far from one), lived and died in the American outback of the Mid-West during a period of few government regulations. Traveling the country to find a “home,” JR settled in Kansas where he thrived as a medical doctor (with no credible license or medical schooling).
Einhorn spins out Brinkley’s unbelievable adventures with a structure similar to Brecht’s. Indeed, his narrator (the fine John Blaylock), with guitar in hand, opens the play advising what events will follow. As he introduces each of the characters and advances a chronological narrative, mini-scenes unfold. In them Einhorn illustrates the key events which relate how Brinkley navigates the highbrow and lowbrow society in Kansas. Additionally, Einhorn calculates with absurdist stylistic treatment how and why Brinkley achieved success, amassed an adoring and gullible audience of followers, then debased himself in infamy.
With madcap music (on guitar, violin, clarinet, banjo, pennywhistle), the actors act, sing, and perform their characters’ foibles and fabulousnesses. The excellent Trav SD dishes up the loquacious, extroverted, con man Brinkley. His great good will fronts for an unprecedented amorality, corruption and greed. Taken alone, Brinkley’s avariciousness would have raised the suspicions of the most naive. However, through the narrator, Einhorn, with wit and whimsy reveals Brinkley’s illustrious masking qualities and manipulations.
First, as a self-proclaimed entrepreneur with an organized eye for expansion, Brinkley excels. In fact his creative promotional abilities guide him to envision every opportunity to defraud others with impunity. He develops the idea to treat erectile dysfunction and “sterility” with surgical implantations of goat glands. When the procedure works for one man (most probably through the placebo effect), he capitalizes on this unrelated “success.” With a keen sales savvy for the depression era, Brinkley like a circus barker, twists male egos against themselves. Indeed, he advertises his goat gland surgical cure to tremendous male response. Additionally, he develops a handy mail order product catalogue for a myriad of cures also using goat glands and other concoctions. All the procedures and healing tinctures prove ineffective! However, despite tragedies and deaths along the way, Brinkley becomes the doctor sensation of Kansas with his clinic and hospital.
In between songs performed by John Blaylock and the ensemble like “It’s a Lie,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and “Brinkley, You’re the Man for Us,” Trav SD’s Brinkley hoodwinks and shills his way to the top. Cleverly, he purchases a radio station. For his programming he hires the first “country and western” type performers to soothe and entertain. In between he hawks the “success” of his “guaranteed” home remedies.
Through his propagandistic Trump-style radio infomercials, sales skyrocket. Creatively maintaining control, Brinkley produces, directs, script-writes and performs his own radio programs. Eliciting loyalty, Brinkley and his cast of actors and musicians entertain and convince with “down-home” folksy, “bless your sweet little Christian heart” cheer. And to assist he brings in his sugary wife Minnie (the equally outrageous Jenny Lee Mitchell). His crew includes the singing Blind Cowbody (John Blaylock). And when necessary, Brinkley hires many other performers (played by Craig Anderson, Julia Hoffmann). Indeed, one of them reputedly was Gene Autry who started his career with Brinkley’s radio shows.
Einhorn’s comparison to today’s rise of Trump is right on. He reveals that Brinkley, et. al., like most sociopaths, politicians, and con men, knows how to manipulate his audience. Thus, he creates his fandom and star power by tailoring his programs and products to what the folks want to see and hear, regardless of their efficacy. Ironically, the fact that supporters purchase garbage that in many instances makes them sick, poisons them or kills them, matters little. If Brinkley says it, it must be true.
Yes, Brinkley’s huckster’s soul is rotted-out with corruption. Indeed, where the fictional Horatio Alger was aspiring and noble in his pursuit of the American dream, the real-life Brinkley was of the criminal, amoral class. Einhorn’s plot development shows that Brinkley’s followers swallow Brinkley’s charlatanism whole. At the same time we gaze in horror recognizing that history repeats itself. For Brinkley could be Donald Trump’s twin, minus a few disparate, demented and desperate details.
With stylistic brio Einhorn does what he enjoys doing most. He employs absurdist, comedic mayhem to examine outrageous social and cultural behavior. We appreciate the themes (greed inspires criminality). Another theme suggests: “harming others is OK if you never get caught.” Additionally, lying suits up the fraudulent con man beautifully. For by the time the media exposes the lie, the huckster rips out 100 more. You can’t catch a liar who never admits he lies or apologizes for being “wrong.” All of these themes Einhorn crystallizes through the lens of sardonic humor, hyperbole and wit.
As Brinkley’s audacity of mendacity, trickery, and chicanery ripens to its pinnacle, so do his liabilities. Not only does he attract the attention of Morris Fishbine (Julia Hoffmann) of the American Medical Association, but the relatives of many of those who have been killed, injured, and damaged sue Brinkley for monetary awards. Eventually, Fishbein and the press expose his criminality and officials go after Brinkley. As a result, he loses his practice and his radio station.
To gain recourse and change the law in his favor, he runs for Governor of Kansas. Ironically, the current politician allowed Brinkley to practice as a fraud because he enriched politicians’ pockets and helped make the communities thrive. If not for the self-dealing of his political opponents who disqualified ballots, Brinkley would have succeeded. Though he knows how to tickle the ears of his fans to support him, his demise threatens on the horizon. Thus, he picks up his stakes and plants them in a sleepy little town in Texas. And the mansion he built there, remains on the historic register even today.
The thought-provoking The Resistible Rise of Jr Brinkley presented by Untitled Theater Company NO. 61, remains doubly potent considering that JR Brinkley’s story is a true one. Albeit, viewing human behavior in all its “glory” reminds us of our own susceptibility to liars and con artists. Certainly, JR Brinkley would not have been initially successful if males weren’t drawn in by the lure of virility. If men and women saw through him, Brinkley, like Hitler, like Trump, would have been a loser nobody. Why ordinary folks didn’t #resist them boggles the imagination, and remains a clarion call for all time.
Considering those who follow Donald Trump as if to the death, Brinkley’s fraud and political bid resonates. We need more not less regulation to protect us from those who use the US taxpayer to self-deal. And we need heavy punishments for top officials, indeed presidents, who would destroy the public good to profit themselves. Indeed, Brinkley’s rush to avoid regulation parallels the Trump presidency’s push to end regulations governing finance, environmental protection, student loan debt and much more.
Look for Einhorn’s The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley at another venue, perhaps some time in the future in NYC. It deserves a second go-round. You will heartily enjoy it!