The opening tableau of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which opened at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre on Thursday, is horribly upsetting and frankly makes you wonder what you’re walking into. In the middle of Bunny Christie’s versatile, simple set consisting of a black box covered in what looks like lit-up graph paper sits the corpse of a dog, impaled with a garden fork. The dog, Wellington, was murdered, and Christopher (Adam Langdon), a 15-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder, makes it his mission to solve the case. As an inciting incident, it is quite straightforward, but the twists and turns of the plot end up covering more ground than you would ever expect, and innovative staging makes for a truly dazzling production.
Curious Incident is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Mark Haddon. The stage version, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2012 and won seven Olivier Awards. It later ran on Broadway for almost two years, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Play. The original National Theatre production is the same one that is now in Los Angeles, and this is exactly the type of show that will surely have a long, profitable life in theaters of all shapes and sizes. While the vivid central character and emotional journey evoke a feeling of intimacy, highly physical and inventive staging makes the show larger than life, combining a small, human story with theater spectacle in a rare and far-reaching way.
The grid the show takes place on has many uses—it is used for projections (Finn Ross), for displaying artwork Christopher draws in chalk on the ground, and as a blank slate of sorts on which the ensemble of ten can create magic. In addition to playing a variety of important characters and sometimes delivering narration, they also act as furniture and props—in one scene, where we see Christopher arriving to his home in Swindon, they create shapes with their bodies to mimic the doormat, a coat rack, a table, and even the bed Christopher eventually lies in to play video games. The ensemble also literally carries Christopher at times, notably in one scene in act two when they enable him to appear as if he is walking along the walls perpendicular to the stage, a sequence which drew rare mid-act applause from the audience.
While the book is told strictly from Christopher’s point of view and this is, for all intents and purposes, a rather loyal adaptation, the play uses a variety of storytelling techniques. There are so many, in fact, that it seems like it should not work—in addition to the many functions of the ensemble, you also have Christopher’s teacher and therapist, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) often acting as a narrator. In act one, she sometimes reads aloud from a book she has instructed Christopher to write about his experience investigating the dog murder, and in act two, the book is adapted into a play—see what they did there? Transitions between scenes are often abrupt and almost jarring with the action opting to move on once necessary information has been delivered. All of this combined should feel busy and overwhelming, but the emotional threads are so strong and the staging is so smart that somehow it never feels that way. Christopher’s beloved pet rat, Toby, is even played by an actual, live rat, because what is live theatre without as many variables as possible?
Nearly all of the aforementioned emotional threads have to do with Christopher as a character, who is beautifully portrayed by Langdon here. Christopher’s particular autism spectrum disorder, which is never addressed by name in the show, seems to be a rather severe one. He does not go to a mainstream school, he can recite every prime number into the thousands, he has a strong preference for the colors blue and red (and equally strong dislike for yellow and brown), he dislikes being touched, and he navigates the city in a very particular way, consisting of a specific system of right and left turns. During act one, as Christopher gets closer to an answer about who killed Wellington, an answer that shatters his perception of his own family more than he ever thought possible, we see him building a model train on stage with increasing franticness.
When the completed train is not only functional but provides a literal roadmap for the unprecedented adventure Christopher embarks on in act two, it is a stunning moment that brings everything we have seen up until that point together. While his mission changes multiple times throughout the show, his core personality and values never shift, and your heart will break for him as he discovers the secrets his family has kept from him and root for him as he fights his fears.
It feels worth mentioning that not all autism experts or people affected by autism find Christopher to be a good representation of the disorder. Haddon’s novel was marketed specifically as a book about a boy with Asperger’s, even though that word never appears in the text. Many of its critics feel Christopher’s condition is far too extreme to be truly indicative of Asperger’s, which no longer exists as a separate diagnosis but was generally associated with high-functioning cases. Others feel the portrayal of Christopher as a mathematical savant is stereotypical and damaging. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and others have written that the play helped them get a sense of what is happening inside the brains of their children with spectrum disorders in a way they never had previously. Also on a very positive note, in productions this coming fall at Indiana Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage, Mickey Rowe will become the first actor with an autism spectrum disorder to play the role of Christopher, a very necessary and exciting step towards better disability representation in the media.
The reason I have talked so little about the plot is because it is arguably the least special thing about this show. That is not to discredit it—it is an engaging story that keeps you invested even throughout a relatively lengthy two and a half hours. But when every other element feels exceptional, something has to be a bit ordinary. Oh, and don’t worry—they make up for the disturbing initial image with the crowd-pleasing appearance of a ridiculously adorable puppy towards the end.
The National Theatre Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through September 10th at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. You can also enter a daily lottery to win tickets for $19.67 through the TodayTix app. After LA, this production will proceed to Costa Mesa and Las Vegas. Photo: Joan Marcus