Faking it: Capgras Syndrome at NEUROfest

Imposters by Justin Warner

Charvy Narain 18 February 2006

The playwright Justin Warner gives us a glimpse into a strange neurological disorder. Photo credit: Eric Hokanson

Although Andrew is a ‘geek’, he is also a humanized geek: his emotions, and his attempts to understand his family, are what drives the play

Judging by media portrayals of scientists, we all:

a. wear big glassesb. have messy Einstein hairc. have no romantic relationships

According to the survey on, quite a few people are miffed by these silly scientist stereotypes, so you will be glad to learn that none of the scientists in Imposters wear glasses, all have really nice hair, and (gasp!) one of them even turns out to have had an extramarital affair with a friend’s wife.

Imposters, written by Justin Warner, is part of the recently concluded NEUROfest, a month-long theatre festival in New York, apparently the first ever theatre festival entirely dedicated to neurological conditions. The festival included plays on autism, amnesia, aphasia, Tourette’s syndrome, synesthesia, Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD), dementia, Meniere’s disease – a veritable encyclopedia of strange and wonderful syndromes.

Imposters features what is probably one of the strangest syndromes ever: Capgras syndrome, named after the French psychiatrist who first diagnosed it. People with Capgras syndrome become convinced that close acquaintances (family, friends) have been replaced by an identical-looking impostor. It sometimes happens with other delusional disorders such as schizophrenia, but it also pops up on its own.

In the case of Imposters, it pops up in Vincent, the dropout son of a Midwestern American family who, after a car accident, becomes convinced that his parents are not who they claim to be. Brilliantly acted by Lucas Steele, who makes being a dropout appear to be quite an attractive idea, Vincent is alternately completely at a loss about what to do about his parents being kidnapped and replaced by ‘these people’, or busy beating up his younger brother (the only member of his family he recognises) for collaborating with the ‘substituted’ parents.

While Vincent is the patient, much of the play is about how his family deals with his illness: the syndrome is just a way of getting at the dynamics of what drives this dysfunctional family.

Most of the play is narrated by Vincent’s younger brother Andrew (Anthony Bagnetto), who bears the double guilt of having been behind the wheel when the car accident happened and being the clever kid doing a Ph.D. at Columbia, thus becoming totally disconnected from his working-class family. Anyone who has ever tried to explain their Ph.D. work to their increasingly glazed-eyed family will immediately empathize with Andrew.

Although Andrew is a ‘geek’, he is also a humanized geek: his emotions, and his attempts to understand his family, are what drives the play. As he often speaks directly to the audience, you end up watching a lot of the action from his point of view. And this is definitely the scientist’s point of view: he is the one most curious about the neurological explanation for his brother’s condition and, together with a scientist friend, he is the one who hatches a plan to treat his brother. So he often talks about science, both to the audience and to other characters.

Thankfully, all of the experiments and explanations mentioned in the play are scientifically accurate: nothing beats watching a film or a play with someone (i.e. me) shifting about in their chair shouting ‘That’s crap!’ every time a scientific ‘explanation’ is presented. (No one wants to see James Bond films with me anymore) .

But in the end, this isn’t a play about science, and the festival isn’t about exhibiting a series of medical illustrations. As the festival blurb puts it, these plays ‘show the human mind both hampered and augmented by its neurological state’, and Imposters does so admirably.

Related links

Although NEUROfest has come to a close, you can read about the various performances it featured here.

Other articles by Charvy Narain