Alternately funny, wrenching, riveting, and ultimately inspiring
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|The Curious Incident
of the Dog in the Night-Time
Review by Catey Sullivan
There are only two things that all humans are genetically hard-wired to fear: Unexpected, loud noises and falling. It’s the former that relentlessly besiege the extraordinary leading man in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. When Christopher Boone ventures beyond the tight confines of the world he knows, he finds himself under attack, assaulted by a constant, overwhelming barrage of terrifying, incoherent noise. Imagine waking up to find yourself trapped in a wholly unfamiliar world, flooded by non-stop, ear-piercing screams and thunderous crashes – so it is for Christopher after he leaves his familiar, small-town routine and attempts to navigate the uproar of London.
Playwright Simon Stephens never explicitly mentions autism in the drama inspired by Mark Haddon’s novel. But as this alternately funny, wrenching, riveting, and ultimately inspiring story unfolds, it’s clear that Christopher falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. Helmed by director Marianne Elliott, Christopher’s adventures – launched by his discovery of a neighbor’s dog murdered with a garden fork – are as illuminating as they are compelling. If you’re unfamiliar with autism, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be revelatory. Scratch that. It will be revelatory no matter how much you know about autism.
That’s not to say that Stephens’ drama has an ounce of didacticism. Nor does it fall into the cloying or emotionally manipulative disease-of-the-week mire that plagues so many pop culture depictions of people living with physical and/or mental disorders. Instead, Stephens’ manages to immerse the audience wholly in the world as Christopher sees it. People confuse him. Social situations confound him. Strange surroundings send him into a heart-racing panic.
For people who are not on the autism spectrum, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time provides a window into a world that can make even the most innocuous encounter feel like a walk through a mine field, while enemy planes strafe the ground from above. Elliott accomplishes this with invaluable help from a team of designers – Bunny Christie (sets and costumes), Paule Constable (lights), Ian Dickinson (sound design) and Finn Ross (video). When all these elements are in place, Christopher’s world becomes all-engulfing.
Christie’s towering grid of a set is marvelous reflection of a brain that keeps everything compartmentalized – and that can be thrown into chaos if the tidy boundaries of those compartments are upended. In one remarkable scene, we see Christopher trying to navigate London’s underground tube system, an environment that can be a frightening, cacophonous maze even to those without autism. It’s a war zone for Christopher, a roaring Babylon of sensory overload. Constable’s lighting and Ross’s rapid-fire video projections accompany Dickinson’s chaotic sound design to create a perfect maelstrom of confusion that’ll have you biting your nails just to relieve the tension.
Throughout, choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use stylized movement to further intensify Christopher’s struggle to make sense of the world. The cast has a fluid physicality that’s both beautiful and – as Christopher goes further and further away from the routine he knows – harrowing.
The deeper the play goes into Christopher’s singular point of view, the more it seems that his view of the world often makes a whole lot more sense than the view of the ‘normal’ people surrounding him. Christopher’s inability to process metaphors makes perfect sense once you start to really think about them. Ditto his exasperation with the constant demands his parents and others make of him. When he’s told to be quiet (as he often is), Christopher is justifiably befuddled. His response (“For how long?”) has an undeniable logic.
As he works on the uncovering the mystery of the dead dog, Christopher’s detective work leads him to uncover family secrets that are as upsetting as his solo venture into London’s clattering underground labyrinths. As the story winds on, Curious Incident… becomes an unusual hybrid of murder mystery and family drama. It’s equally strong on both counts.
As Christopher, Adam Langdon anchors the piece with a performance that’s exhaustingly intense, high-energy and physical. He captures both the heroism and the flaws in Christopher’s complicated personality, making you root for the character throughout. As a teacher who both understands and loves Christopher, Maria Elena Ramirez is a force of compassion, intelligence and stability in a world that, at least for Christopher, is mad in countless respects.
With ensemble members doing double- and triple-duty throughout, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has a meta- feel to it. It’s sort of a play-within-a-play: Christopher has written a book about his adventures, and his teacher is intent on turning that book into a play. When ensemble members aren’t part of the action, they often remain on stage, simply sitting to the side until the action calls them back. Those sorts of devices can be distracting, but they work beautifully in here. Their presence – even when they aren’t part of the story – speaks to Christopher’s singular brain. Everything is always present somewhere, competing for his attention.
But as much as The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story about autism, it’s more a story about a person who happens to be dealing with autism. Christopher is never merely an amalgam of symptoms. He’s not defined by autism – he’s defined by his off-the-charts intelligence, his intrepidness, his curiosity, and his unwavering desire to get to the bottom of a troubling mystery. As heroes go, we could all take a page from his unusual book.
The Curious Incident… continues through December 24th at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map). Tickets are $55-$90, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CuriousBroadway.com or BroadwayInChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Adam Langdon (Christopher Boone), Benjamin Wheelwright (Christopher Boone at some performances), Josephine Hall (opening night: Mrs. Shears, Mrs. Gascoyne, woman on train, shopkeeper, ensemble), Maria Elena Ramirez (Siobhan, ensemble), Charlotte Maier (Mrs. Shears, Mrs. Gascoyne, woman on train, shopkeeper, ensemble), Tim Mckiernan (opening night: Mr. Thompson, policeman 1, drunk, man with socks, London policeman, voice three, ensemble), Brian Robert Burns (Mr. Thompson, policeman 1, drunk, man with socks, London policeman, voice three, ensemble), John Hemphill (Roger Shears, Duty Sergeant, Mr. Wise, man behind the counter, drunk, voice 2, ensemble), Gene Gillette (Ed, ensemble), Geoffrey Wade (Reverend Peters, Uncle Terry, station policeman, station guard, voice four, ensemble), Francesca Chay-Kee (No. 37, lady in street, information, punk girl, voice five, ensemble), Amelia White (Mrs. Alexander, posh woman, voice six, ensemble), Felicity Jones Latta (Judy, ensemble), Robin Kerr, J. Paul Nicholas ( understudies, ensemble).
behind the scenes
Marianne Elliott (director), Tim Wright (dance captain), Bunny Christie (costume and set design), Paule Constable (lighting design), Finn Ross (video design), Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett (choreographers), Adrian Sutton (original music), Ian Dickinson (sound design), David Brian Brown (wig and hair design), Ben Furey (dialect coach), Kristin Newhouse, Jay Carey (stage managers), Daniel Swee, Cindy Tolan (casting), Taylor Haven Holt (asst. director), Yasmine Lee, Jess Williams (associate choreographers), Kathleene Purvis (production stage manager), Elizabeth M. Talmadge (company manager), Aurora Productions (production management), Bespoke Theatricals (general manger), Joan Marcus (photos)