Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Usually, the "Broadway" series offered by larger national tour-hosting theaters consists of a variety of stage musicals, from popular hits and recent revivals to so-so titles that hit the road to extend its reach beyond New York.
Rarely do Broadway plays go on tour—so when one is thrown into the mix of a local theater's offerings, you know it's very likely to be something extra special.
That is basically one of many superlatives you can bestow on the intriguing road production of Simon Stephen's Tony Award-winning play “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME,” now in Costa Mesa at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through September 17. For two-plus electrifying hours, audiences are offered a rare treat: a modern, theatrically-thrilling play direct from Broadway—by way of London's acclaimed Royal National Theatre and based on Mark Haddon's novel—that enraptures the audience in the same manner you would more likely expect from an all-singing, all-dancing grandiose musical.
Uniquely structured, visually stunning, and yet remarkably approachable, “CURIOUS INCIDENT”—directed with dynamic exuberance by Tony winner Marianne Elliott—is a prime example of what a great live theater experience can bring to an audience willing to jump in for a different kind of ride.
Right from the get-go, the play elicits plenty of exactly what's promised in the title: curiosity (and, yes, there's a dog). Right away, it feels unlike any play you've ever experienced.
As the audience enters the theater to find their seats, they'll immediately notice a curtain-free open stage fitted with an imposing giant black room. The room is lined perfectly with illuminated white grids on all sides, including the floor. And right smack dab in the center of the floor is an unexpected sight: a rather large dead dog impaled with a rather large pitchfork. It's actually quite a disturbing scene to walk into… eased only slightly with the knowledge that it is (hopefully) not a real dead dog (Hello!? This is theater!)
This futuristic-looking block container—outfitted with seemingly millions of LED lights, large projections, and lots of hidden compartments—feels like something out of the movie Tron. For me personally (nerd alert), the perfectly symmetrical grid-lined stage box is immediately reminiscent of an empty holo-deck in Star Trek where the surroundings will soon come to life once the "hologram" projections inside are activated.
In somewhat similar fashion during the entirety of “CURIOUS INCIDENT,” the play’s blank electronic canvas also comes to life as the digitally-animated immersive environment that surrounds 15-year-old Christopher Boone (played with unbound ferocity by Adam Langdon), a mathematical genius and amateur sleuth who also displays signs of a young man on the more pronounced end of the autism spectrum—though this is never once outright mentioned or used to describe him in the play.
His assumed Asperger's-like condition is, naturally, the primary shaper of the play's narrative, as the audience witnesses first-hand in great, almost visceral visual and audio detail what it means and feels like to have this condition: a disturbingly chaotic cacophony of piercing sounds, nagging voices, incessant stimuli, and flashing lights that overtake, overwhelm, and overpower anyone in its nucleus. The once blank, dark grid that make up the stage suddenly becomes an enveloping avalanche of light and noise that's difficult to escape—not for the audience and certainly not for Christopher.
Aside from the sensory overload, even the slightest touch can set Christopher off into a toddler-like tirade. It's heartbreaking to watch—knowing how uncontrollable and debilitating this condition can be for a person who must endure it. “CURIOUS INCIDENT” cleverly immerses the audience in Christopher's world, allowing us to, at least briefly, step into his world.
Not surprisingly, Christopher is so much more comfortable with the language of maths, so it's only fitting that he is seen at his calmest and most confident when he is dealing only in that language. Fittingly, the play even later treats Christopher like a rock star—complete with all the swagger and strut—while diving into some serious mathematical problem solving.
As one may expect, Christopher's unpredictable condition is a challenging aspect to be around, particularly for his well-meaning working class dad Ed (Gene Gillette), who is raising his son alone and trying his best, for all intents and purposes, to be a good (or, perhaps, good enough) parent to a child with special needs.
Ed desperately wants to connect emotionally with his son while keeping him safe and content at the same time. But because Christopher's condition doesn't allow many moments for meaningful conversations, for common sense human understanding, or even for physical demonstrations of affection (Christopher, remember, doesn't like to be touched), Ed feels the need to be just at arms-length from his otherwise brilliant son, yet is still extra protective while also being fiercely cautious.
Ed, too, feels overwhelmed and mostly confused as to how to best handle him without losing him completely. But then again, he chooses to be evasive during Christopher's rare queries about his no-longer-around Mom, dodging a perfectly good opportunity to connect.
Book smart, highly analytical, and, of course, mathematically inclined, Christopher prefers calm, order… and answers. So when we first meet him, he is fixated with something new: he has tasked himself to solve the mystery of the neighbor's murdered dog, Wellington, a bloody act he is initially accused of doing himself. Once his father retrieves him from jail, Christopher dives deep into his scientifically-charged investigation, running into many "obstacles" along the way.
Funny enough, in the process of his investigation (which he, duh, eventually solves), he also accidentally uncovers a different, much more juicy mystery—one that personally holds an important key to his past and his future. This discovery, natch, triggers an irrational, spontaneous decision to run away from home, breaking him out from the somewhat protective bubble of his hometown Swindon to the congested streets of London. Will he fare well in such an overwhelming environment away from his dad, his sole protector?
In one of the play's many interesting twists, Christopher's absorbing, surprisingly riveting tale—part electro-fantasy, part animated infographic, part detective mystery, and part road adventure—is actually conveyed as a staged play for the audience, read out loud from Christopher's self-penned manuscript in a "Children's Story Hour"-kind of voice by his enthusiastic mentor/school therapist Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), a wonderfully encouraging, if slightly patronizing, non-judgmental presence in his life. She recognizes another talent in Christopher—writing—and is championing him to continue.
Meanwhile, a hardworking standby troupe of metamorphic character actors sit patiently in the sidelines to await their many turns to get up and portray various people—and objects—that cross paths with Christopher. An awesome compliment to Finn Ross' eye-popping video designs/projections and Paule Constable's intuitively choreographed lights is the play’s incredibly fluid ensemble cast, whose movements were devised by Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Bunny Christie's inventive scenic and costume designs complete this production's modern high-tech aspirations.
But while the plot of “CURIOUS INCIDENT” itself isn't too complicated, the play’s clever and often artistically beautiful usage of technology combined with innovative staging and terrific acting performances are the things that make the play truly satisfying to watch. Even better, Langdon brings an endearing quality and memorable authenticity to his performance as Christopher that earns our affections and sympathy almost instantly (he alternates the role with Benjamin Wheelwright at certain performances). Sure, the visuals certainly do play a much more significant role in the telling of this story, but it does so in service of the play's goal to illustrate the main character's mind, ultimately making for a much more engaging experience overall.
A quirky, captivating exercise in theatrical inventiveness “CURIOUS INCIDENT” may be a high-tech-reliant play, but for the most part, it is ultimately a searingly human story that we can all cheer and celebrate.
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Photos from the National Tour of CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the National Tour of “THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, September 17, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.