OnStage Connecticut Critic
Christopher Boone doesn’t quite fit in. He thinks differently than those around him, has trouble making friends and often annoys the people he comes into contact with. He does large sums of math in his head yet has trouble reading facial expressions and understanding basic figures of speech. He loves space, trains and his rat Toby yet hates the color yellow and being touched. The most monumental achievement in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” isn’t telling Christopher’s story but transplanting us right into his psyche. Theater has a long and storied tradition of doing just that. From Seurat to Stella, Shrek to Shylock some of the best theater lets us see life through the eyes of an outsider who doesn’t fit in with the world around them. “Curious Incident” does that and so much more. It is a fully immersive and transformative show, which accomplishes that task like no other piece I’ve seen.
Closely based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” tells a seemingly simple story. One evening, 15-year-old Christopher finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington dead with a garden pitchfork through its body. The dog’s owner and the policeman who comes to investigate think Christopher might be the culprit but we know that’s not true. Why? Because Christopher tells us himself. Like the source material, the play uses narration from a personal essay homework assignment Christopher writes for his special education teacher Siobhan. What follows are Christopher’s own adventures in his own words as he tries to find out who killed Wellington. Along the way he uncovers a secret about his parents and goes on a journey that pushes the boundaries of his comfort zone to the limit.
Yes, the central mystery is largely a McGuffin, but plot is not what Simon Stephens’ play is most interested in. The goal is to see the world through the eyes of our protagonist, who is most likely on the autism spectrum, which is done magically through means both technically savvy and primitive by director Marianne Elliot. Bunny Christie’s set is a large, white, three-sided grid not unlike the board from one of Christopher’s favorite computer games:
Minesweeper. During the course of the story, it comes to life with sketches, math equations, train schedules and even a sky-full of stars courtesy of Finn Ross’ pitch perfect projections. Except for a handful of stackable white cubes (the kind of all-purpose theater material you’re likely to find at any high school blackbox), the rest of the scene changes are accompanied by using the excellent ensemble cast as living scenery. In brilliantly staged moments (choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett), the throng of bodies come together as a single organism – sometimes angry and chaotic, sometimes still and sympathetic – that disorient Christopher or, quite literally, allow him to fly.
Notice how Adrian Sutton’s techno-infused score is always a bit too loud, making you want to cover your ears in crucial moments. Or maybe note the use of strobe and unexpectedly sudden cues in Paule Constable’s lighting design. Notice, as well, the odd, over-annunciated cadence many of the adults speak with. What at first seemed like a case of bad acting revealed itself to be another one of Elliot’s best tricks – we hear his elders the way Christopher does, with little nuance and a sing-song synthetic tone. Together, all these strands create a richly textured tapestry that changes the way each and every audience member views the world Christopher lives in.
While Elliot’s staging is the most miraculous part of “Curious Incident,” it is carried out by a terrific ensemble cast including Gene Gillette as Christopher’s father and Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan. Leading the show with a lived-in, nuanced performance at the matinee I attended was Benjamin Wheelwright, who alternates the role of Christopher with Adam Langdon after pulling the same duties on Broadway. An easy role to overplay or reduce to a mawkish, hand-flapping trope, Wheelwright’s Christopher is both bold and childlike, enigmatic and charismatic.
If one can find any fault in this production, originally produced by England’s National Theatre, it lies with Simon Stephens’ decision to frame the second act as a play-within-a-play with Christopher as both director and actor. This change from the first act, which is presented as a reading of Christopher’s homework assignment, is unneeded, under-baked and adds a layer of fourth-wall-breaking hokiness which never quite worked.
But this slight detour does nothing to sour “Curious Incident,” a brilliant play about a brilliant boy. He may seem odd or scary at first but, after spending two hours with him, you’ll quickly realize he is just like everyone else. A bit scared of change, perhaps, and not always able to fit in, but slowly gaining the sacred knowledge that his story is unique and only his to write.