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Like the unusual character at its center, “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time,” a stage adaptation of a beloved book, overcomes a couple of daunting challenges to become….extraordinary.
I loved the peculiar novel by Mark Haddon from the moment ten years ago that I looked at the cover, with its cutout of an upside-down dog, and started reading this “murder mystery novel,” where the victim is a dog named Wellington, and the narrator an amateur sleuth named Christopher Boone. Christopher is a 15-year-old student of a special ed school who’s too literal-minded to understand jokes or metaphors, and screams whenever anybody touches him, but can explain the Milky Way galaxy and prime numbers…and solve a murder.
How does one adapt to the stage a book whose appeal is based partly on its graphic design, and largely on the conceit that the narrator is the author, resorting to describing the events on paper because he is unable to communicate very well with anybody in person?
Playwright Simon Stephens tries to overcome this problem by having Christopher’s teacher Siobhan (Mercedes Herrero) read passages from Christopher’s book aloud (verbatim passages from Haddon’s novel), as if Christopher is handing them into her week by week as assignments. That way the Christopher we see (Alexander Sharp) is incommunicative while the Christopher we hear has broken through the prison of his disabilities. If this isn’t a completely elegant solution – watching even a good actress read from a book can be a drag – it doesn’t have to be perfect; there’s much else that “Curious Incident” has going for it. Marianne Elliott, the British director who last brought to Broadway the spectacular National Theatre production of “War Horse”, works her magic again.
The stagecraft of “Curious Incident” is breathtaking, with scenic designer Bunny Christie, video designer Finn Ross and lighting designer Paule Constable using geometric patterns and a bombardment of well-integrated projections to bring us inside of Christopher’s head and understand how overwhelmed he feels. This effect is enhanced by the movement of the ensemble, choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (well-known for Rocky and Once on Broadway), which can look at times like the kind of exercises used for warm-up in acting classes, but also has some enthralling effects. At one point, we see Christopher literally climbing the walls. Now, when people say somebody’s literally climbing the walls, they usually mean they are figuratively climbing the walls; going crazy. But in “Curious Incident,” Christopher ascends a wall that then magically turns into an escalator that he then descends.
Projections of words and letters and numbers shoot out at him like so much shrapnel.
None of this would work as well were it not for the astonishing performance of Alexander Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, as Christopher. It is a physically demanding role – all that getting lifted through the air. But it requires balancing of a different sort as well, offering a convincing portrait without condescension. Sharp nails the gestures, the lack of eye contact, the matter-of-fact tone. We feel comfortable at exchanges like this one between a railroad policeman and Christopher:
“What is that?”
“That’s Toby, my pet rat…He’s very clean and doesn’t have bubonic plague.”
“Well, that’s very reassuring.”
(Yes, a live white rat is in the cast – and it’s not the only animal.)
Sharp gets wonderful support by the rest of the 15-member (human) cast, most of whom play multiple roles. The mystery of the dead dog is solved by the end of the first act; I won’t spoil it, but knowing the murderer doesn’t really spoil “Curious Incident,” and not just because there is a new specific mystery to solve, but because by then we’ve been caught up in the story of Christopher and his family, and the larger story of how a family copes with one another and the world – an even greater mystery.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
At the Ethel Barrymore Theater
Written by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie, lighting design by Paule Constable, video design by Finn Ross, choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, music by Adian Sutton, sound design by Ian Dickinson
WITH: Alex Sharp* (Christopher Boone), Taylor Trensch (alternate Christopher Boone), Francesca Faridany (Siobhan/Ensemble), Ian Barford (Ed/Ensemble), Enid Graham (Judy/Ensemble), Helen Carey (Mrs. Alexander/Posh Woman/Voice Six/Ensemble), Mercedes Herrero (Mrs. Shears/Mrs. Gascoyne/Woman on Train/Shopkeeper/Voice One/Ensemble), Richard Hollis (Roger Shears/Duty Sergeant/Mr. Wise/Man Behind Counter/Drunk One/Voice Two/Ensemble), Ben Horner (Mr. Thompson/Policeman 1/Drunk Two/Man With Socks/London Policeman/Voice Three/Ensemble), Jocelyn Bioh (No. 37/Lady in Street/Information/Punk Girl/Voice Five/Ensemble), David Manis (Reverend Peters/Uncle Terry/Station Policeman/Station Guard/Voice Four/Ensemble), and Keren Dukes, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Tom Patrick Stephens and Tim Wright (Ensemble).
*Taylor Trensch will play Christopher at certain performances.
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $27.00 – $129.00
Appropriate for theatergoers 10 and over (some strong language). Children under 4 not permitted.