When you go to Broadway to see a David Mamet play, you know to expect lightning fast dialogue and a plot filled with social commentary. When you go to see a Sondheim musical, you know you are going to experience complex lyrics and some overarching theme about human nature. But when you go to see a play like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, it is impossible to prepare yourself for what you are about to see on the stage.
Sure, if you have read the book, you know that the play will be about Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old British teenager who registers somewhere on the Autism spectrum – likely Asperger’s Syndrome. When Christopher is accused of stabbing the next door neighbor’s dog with a pitchfork, he makes it his mission to figure out who really killed the dog and why. This is a fairly simple plot rendered in novel form by Mark Haddon. What Haddon did was allow the reader inside the mind of an autistic child and in doing so, created a huge bestseller on both the adult and children’s book charts. If you haven’t read the novel, you really should.
It is worth noting here, neither the book nor the play, name Christopher’s condition. This allows Christopher to stand in as a representative for anyone who is different. It doesn’t matter what that difference is, the experience of the world is going to be much the same – maybe manifesting in slightly varied ways, but generally that same feeling of “other” exists in all marginalized individuals.
Walking into the theater, what you cannot prepare yourself for is the amount of stage-craft you will find on the boards of the Barrymore Theater in New York City. In novel form, the story would appear to be untranslatable to a stage play. The novel contains drawings and math problems and all sorts of other fascinating sections which allow the reader to really feel Christopher’s plight. The creator of the play, Simon Stephens, along with his design team, have succeeded in bringing all of that to the stage.
Upon entering the theater, audience members are presented with a stage upon which a graph of the space-time continuum is projected. Various props (of color) are scattered about on the black and white tableau. Once the lights begin to dim, it becomes clear that this is not going to be like any other play you have seen. Through the use of lighting, projections, and sound, the production transports the viewer into Christopher’s world. Even the walls and floor are made of chalkboard allowing Christopher to draw various images upon them (and I will note here that I have never seen a person draw more perfect freehand circles than Alex Shape did on that stage). Add to this visual experience, stage movement that is much closer to dance than to traditional acting and you can get a sense of how fresh and original this production feels.
The mystery of the dog murderer is solved in the first act, but this solution sends Christopher on a journey across London and he takes the audience members along. Scenes that take place in the train and subway station are rendered with extreme visual stimulation and excessive sound, allowing the audience to experience what these foreign situations would feel like for Christopher himself. Just when you think the walls and floor have transformed in all the ways possible, the creators of this show manage a few more unbelievable tricks. Wait until you see the escalator and the subway tunnel.
All of the performances are wonderful. Alex Sharp, as Christopher, has created a character who feels as though he lives beyond the confines of the stage. He will no doubt be nominated for a Best Actor Tony – and in a year that will be filled with tough competition, I would be surprised if he doesn’t win. Other standouts include Francesca Faridany as Christopher’s teacher and Ian Bradford as his father. Comic relief is brought by Mercedes Herrero as Mrs. Gascoyne – her repetition of certain lines in the play is hilarious. Jocelyn Bioh also shines in all of her minor roles, especially the uninterested subway attendant.
The moral of the story could have been quite trite, but with the skillful adaptation and slightly open-ended closing, audiences are left with the sense that everyone has limitations and if we push ourselves, we can often overcome some of these artificial boundaries, but no one can do everything – and that’s ok. To claim anything more definitive than that would have rung false and insincere.
Whatever you do, don’t leave your seat after the curtain call. There is the most wonderful coda scene in which Christopher comes back to the stage to show how he solved one of the questions on his Maths A-Level exam. Never in a million years would I have thought that the solving of a math problem would have me alternating between cheering, clapping, and wiping away tears from my eyes.
If you are in NYC, go see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It will be a theatrical experience that you won’t soon forget.