'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Ian Barford and Alex Sharp in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"
Detective story meets pressure-cooker domestic drama with exhilarating results

The smash Brit hit that swept London's Olivier Awards arrives on Broadway in a dazzling production from the director of "War Horse"

Direct from sell-out London runs at the National Theatre and in the West End, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time crosses the Atlantic to Broadway with a boatload of deserved acclaim and awards, both for Mark Haddon's novel and for playwright Simon Stephens' and director Marianne Elliott's kinetically re-imagined stage adaptation. On its surface, this is a murder mystery in which a boy with behavioral difficulties casts himself as the sleuth. But that pretext is merely the jumping-off point for a complex reflection on truth, on the ways in which we look at the world — from wonder to incomprehension to terror — and on the magic of theatrical storytelling.

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Has Stephens written a play for the ages here? Difficult to say. Text and production work in such seamless symbiosis that it's impossible to imagine one existing without the other. While no name is given to the exact nature of the disorder suffered by 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp), his high-functioning autism appears to be Asperger's syndrome. And that condition informs every aspect of the telling and physical staging of this relatively simple story of an outsider struggling to understand the breakdown of everything that's familiar and comforting to him.

The technical elements alone are breathtaking — the kaleidoscopic wash of Paule Constable's lighting with its splashes of DayGlo fluorescence; the explosive cascades and geometric graphics of Finn Ross' video designs; the sensory grip of Ian Dickinson's wraparound sound; the pulsing jolts of Adrian Sutton's techno score; the bold starkness of Bunny Christie's set, a sterile white cube divided by grid lines and housing endless hatches and trapdoors that disgorge an astonishing cornucopia of props. Everything here puts us inside the machine-like, coded order of math prodigy Christopher's mind, allowing us to experience events as he does. Most crucially, it immerses us in his disorientation when things prove beyond his understanding.

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Given that the central character doesn't really "do" feelings beyond panic, when his space is violated or his sense of control threatened, the play's emotional intensity doesn't match the impact of its theatrical inventiveness. Just the sheer busy-ness of the production at times crowds the drama's human dimension, and some of its humorous flourishes veer from cleverness into smarty-pants cuteness. But those are minor reservations about a singular theater piece that commands enormous admiration for the thought that has gone into its every word, gesture and technical effect. On that level alone, it's no less impressive a feat than Elliott's superlative production of War Horse, also for the National.

The play opens with the shocking image of a large dead dog centerstage, a garden fork embedded in its side. Traumatized Christopher stands over the animal's body, insisting to know why it was killed and who did it. A fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, he sets about doing local detective work, despite the refusal of the dog's owner, his neighbor Mrs. Shears (Mercedes Herrero), to speak with him, and the stern warning of his father Ed (Ian Barford) to, "Just try and keep your nose out of other people's business." His mother Judy (Enid Graham) has been out of the picture for two years.

It gradually becomes clear that we are watching an interpretation of Christopher's story, written as a book for his own personal use, and then staged as a play by his nurturing teacher (Francesca Faridany). That idea becomes problematic for the protagonist since a key manifestation of his autism is his inability to lie, and acting, like metaphor, is something he considers inherently dishonest. "I don't like acting because it is pretending that something is real when it is not really real at all so it is like a kind of lie," he says, with characteristic rigidity. The deceit of other people causes Christopher equal discomfort.

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While his reluctance to interact with strangers is an impediment to his investigation, he makes startling discoveries that take him on a frightening odyssey from his home in Wiltshire to London and back.

The staging of that journey is a visceral depiction of surreal chaos, as thrilling as it is frightening. The balletic movement work of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett powerfully conveys the jarring sensations Christopher experiences; in one staggering display he literally strides around the walls. Other unforgettable moments are achieved with that quaintest of toys, an old-fashioned train set, or with sophisticated video and design wizardry, notably in Christopher's first encounter with an escalator.

Onstage virtually the entire time, Sharp, a Brit fresh out of Juilliard, is astonishing in his commitment. The young actor's physical performance has the tensile quality of a clenched fist, and his mental focus is an equal match; he's raw, angry, vulnerable and heartbreakingly confused, often all at once. The marvel of the performance — like the play and production — is that we share so directly in that seismic jumble of feelings, tapping into moments when all of us have felt isolated and overwhelmed by the challenges of negotiating the world and all its otherness.

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The entire versatile ensemble is strong, playing not only a multitude of people but also everything from Christopher's pet rat Toby to a microwave to an ATM machine (some of which, frankly, gets a little precious). Faridany, Barford and Graham breathe sensitive life into the people closest to Christopher, struggling to manage his volatility, while Helen Carey has some lovely scenes as a kindly old woman from across the street who tries to help him.

Elliott and her design team have put together a remarkable production. Its virtuoso stagecraft can occasionally be distancing, even exhausting, and the play is not without its moments of manipulative sentimentality. But more than anything, The Curious Incident is a tremendously exciting demonstration of the power of theater. It makes us want to reconsider the world around us, without missing a single one of its infinite details.

Cast: Alex Sharp, Taylor Trensch, Francesca Faridany, Ian Barford, Enid Graham, Helen Carey, Mercedes Herrero, Richard Hollis, Ben Horner, Jocelyn Bioh, David Manis, Keren Dukes, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Tom Patrick Stephens, Tim Wright
Director: Marianne Elliott
Playwright: Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon
Set and costume designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Music: Adrian Sutton
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Video designer: Finn Ross
Choreographers: Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly
Produced by the National Theatre
Presented by Stuart Thompson, Tim Levy for NT America, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Nick Starr & Chris Harper for NT Productions, Bob Boyett, Roger Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Glass Half Full Productions, Ruth Hendel, Jon B. Platt, Prime Number Group, Scott Rudin, Triple Play Broadway and the Shubert Organization

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