Cynthia Hopkins
Photo © Jori Klein
Cynthia Hopkins
Photo © Jori Klein
Cynthia Hopkins' Accidental Nostalgia is an inventive and thoughtful meditation on memory and amnesia. The show has memorable characters, punchy dialogue, unique alt-country music, and a whirlwind plot. Hopkins' musical style has rightly been compared to that of Tom Waits; some of her lyrics match that musician's manic formulations, and Hopkins sings with a voice as soulful and mellifluous as Norah Jones'. The sleek and professional production design of Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg includes pre-recorded video segments and live feeds. So why am I having so much trouble recommending this show?

For all of its undeniable artistic merit, Accidental Nostalgia sometimes sacrifices substance in the pursuit of style. It begins in an academic symposium during which Hopkins plays Cameron Seymour, the author of How to Change Your Mind, a study on the origins and treatment of amnesia. The neurologist asserts that the study of memory is actually the study of forgetting; only through the absence of memory are we made aware of its presence. It's a clever idea that provides fodder for the perennial avant-garde fascination with illusion vs. reality.

But whereas Edward Albee, for example, turned these questions into such moving, human dramas as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Play About the Baby, the theoretical underpinnings of Hopkins' story aren't fleshed out. We learn that the good doctor is also the patient, and that her amnesia may or may not have resulted from an act of sexual abuse that her (perhaps step-, perhaps biological) father may have committed upon her when she was just a child. This trauma may have caused her to murder him, after which she possibly became a fugitive. Then the plot becomes increasingly confusing, and it somehow culminates in Morocco with a spiritual awakening.

Infuriatingly elusive, Accidental Nostalgia denies the audience the possibility of empathy; Hopkins' amnesiac seems more like a walking and talking postmodern condition than a delineated character. This is not to say that Hopkins doesn't make herself vulnerable as a performer; on the contrary, her material derives partly from autobiography. According to interviews, she lost her memory after her mother died of cancer. There's a lot of emotion underneath her giddy evasions, and there are moments in which she bares all -- both emotionally and physically. In one scene, Hopkins lies flat on an examining table while an assistant moves roving spy-cams up her skirt and blouse; in another, she strips completely nude. But the plot itself is overdressed.

Even when the play's hard to connect with, it's still an exciting experience. The music alone would merit a trip to Dumbo, where Accidental Nostalgia is playing at St. Ann's swanky, enormous Warehouse. The band Gloria Deluxe plays the performance artist's compositions live, with passion and flair. DJ Mendel's direction and Johanna Che Toback's choreography are in a vaudeville style that serves the piece well. Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg leave their sound and video booths at various points to perform in the show, and they make a natural comic pair that the Coen brothers might deploy to great effect. There is much to enjoy in Accidental Nostalgia, despite its significant flaws.