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In the second act of the eccentric and endearing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, there’s a hair-raising scene when Christopher, a 15-year-old likely afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, is plucked from the path of a speeding train. The moment is jolting as the audience can practically feel the floor rumble beneath its feet. Only there is no train, just sound effects and lights, in keeping with the brilliantly minimalist vision of director Marianne Elliott (War Horse). Winner of five Tony Awards including best play, Curious Incident risked being overhyped but instead is every bit as good as its acclaim indicates. Smart, original and brimming with humanity, it arrives in Los Angeles with its magic intact.
Elliott is the director of the moment, coming off War Horse, which, like Curious Incident, originated at London’s National Theatre. She won Tonys for both plays and is again winning raves for her current revival of Angels in America, also at the National. Playwright Simon Stephens followed this success with his May-December two-hander, Heisenberg, which happens to be playing across the courtyard from the Ahmanson at the Mark Taper Forum.
Stepping in for Broadway lead Alex Sharp, who won a Tony for the physically and emotionally demanding role of Christopher Boone, is Adam Langdon, alternating in the national touring cast with Benjamin Wheelwright. Christopher is a fussy kid who takes everything at face value. Metaphors confuse him, and he is unable to interpret expressions, which means his best friends are numbers and order. The apple boxes that serve as props are aligned just so. And if lost in the city he will walk in ever-widening circles to orient himself. Of course he could ask someone, but Christopher doesn’t care to interact with strangers, and cannot stand to be touched.
For any actor, there’s a danger that Christopher’s inability to connect with others could place him outside the audience’s sympathy. To his credit, Langdon accesses the character’s emotional core by neither pandering nor apologizing for the challenges of his condition. The fact that the young actor looks more like a man in his mid-twenties than a 15-year-old boy may only be problematic for the first few rows, as this is a fully committed performance, mentally active even during passive moments.
A crime has been committed and the neighbor’s dog is dead, a pitchfork protruding from its side. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes, (which provides inspiration for the play’s title), Christopher concludes that someone has to know who killed the animal, even if that someone is the killer. His “detecting” leads to a stash of letters written to him by his mother.
In the second act, he travels solo to London from his hometown of Swindon. This is the play’s most visually stimulating sequence, emphasizing the bare-bones inventiveness of Elliott and her Tony-winning design team, including Bunny Christie (sets), Finn Ross (video) and Paule Constable (lighting). The city is presented in a brilliant cacophony of shadow and sound, overwhelming Christopher’s senses, illustrating his inner experience through a harmonious marriage of text and design.
Langdon is given a full-throated assist by an outstanding ensemble that includes Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan, an affable therapist who sometimes serves as narrator, reading from Christopher’s book about his adventures. She exudes the warmth and compassion missing from his life until he is reunited with his mother, Judy, through her letters. In Felicity Jones Latta’s open-hearted performance, Judy clearly has made some mistakes along the way, but is plagued by regret and consumed with longing to see her son again.
Christopher’s father is a wronged man, unwilling to let go of bitterness. He loves his son but feels diminished and defeated by life, leaving him emotionally depleted. Gene Gillette has no trouble accessing the role’s required remoteness, but struggles to bring much life to the character. While his emotions are blunted, so is his performance, wringing limited passion from his apologetic monologue to Christopher at the end of Act I.
To say the work’s later stages lack dramatic drive is to point up very minor flaws in playwright Stephens’ otherwise incisive adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel. The story is told from Christopher’s point of view, meaning the challenge falls on the creators to physically translate the world through his eyes. In Curious Incident, the solution is surprisingly simple. Christopher lives with most of the world’s noise shut out, in a neat and ordered universe of likes and dislikes. Such a place naturally suggests minimalism.
When Haddon wrote his novel, he deliberately refrained from naming Christopher’s condition because he didn’t want it to become the character’s identifier. In subsequent interviews he revealed that Christopher has Asperger’s, but emphasized that he is more than his condition, that he is a curious, thoughtful person with a sense of justice confronted by a world he often finds frightening and confusing. In other words, he’s like most of us.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Adam Langdon, Benjamin Wheelwright, Maria Elena Ramirez, Gene Gillette, Felicity Jones Latta, Amelia White, Kathy McCafferty, John Hemphill, Brian Robert Burns, Francesca Choy-Kee, Geoffrey Wade, Josephine Hall, Robyn Kerr, Tim McKiernan, J. Paul Nicholas, Tim Wright
Director: Marianne Elliott
Playwright: Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon
Set & 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
Presented by Center Theatre Group, The National Theatre, Stuart Thompson, Tim Levy for NT America, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Lisa Burger for NT Productions, Bob Boyett, Roger & William Berlind, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Glass Half Full Productions, Ruth Hendel JFLT TLP Partnership, Job B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Triple Play Broadway, The Shubert Organization
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