I had read the bestselling novel by Mark Haddon long before I saw the theatrical adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and I didn’t remember being particularly upset by the book. I knew the story involved a young teenage boy, Christopher, who was possibly on the spectrum, and his attempt to solve the mystery of a neighbor’s dead dog. I wondered if the play would be more visceral than the book, especially in regards t0 the murder of the dog.
The answer did not take long to reveal itself. When you enter the Ahmanson Theater, the curtain is up and you are immediately confronted with the sight of a dead prop dog with a pitchfork sticking out of it. The rest of the set is just a large grid, a chair, and several white boxes off to the side. So depending on how early you arrive, you have a good amount of time to come to grips with the dog.
The stage that is so bare at first represents a whole new direction in set design. It is as if the entire set is the inside of Christopher’s brain. The mathematical precision of the grid reflects his obsession with order. However, the spareness also allows for infinite possibilities. Using drawings, projections, lights and computer effects, set designer Bunny Christie not only creates backgrounds, but gives insight into Christopher’s intense emotional states.
When Christopher, (played splendidly by Adam Langdon), is triggered and curls up into himself, cradling his head, bright lights shoot out from his body, which, along with cacophonous sound effects, let us feel some of the overstimulation he feels. The set is so clever, that with just a headlight and some 3 dimensional chalkwork, the entire audience is terrified by the imminent danger of an oncoming train. The white boxes and members of the cast are also used in imaginative ways to create whatever background might be required. Occasionally the play even toys with the the reality and unreality of the theatre format. It teases around the fourth wall, even threatening to smash it entirely.
Although “The Curious Incident…” is not a musical, there is a lot of choreography and movement. Two of the more impressive scenes involve the complex motions of the crowd in the tube station, and the depiction of Christopher’s dreams of flying.
London’s Royal National Theatre is first-rate, with each actor portraying different characters, even imbuing them with the appropriate British accent. Mrs Alexander, (played by Amelia White), is charming as the lonely, nosy neighbor whose voice reminds us of the kind dowagers from old Disney movies. Gene Gillette’s performance as Christopher’s father is so heartfelt, he made us cry twice only with the timbre of his voice as he speaks to his son.
Although the play is heavy, there is also a lot of comedy. Much of it stems from Christopher’s straightforward responses to the other characters. The laughter of the audience feels inappropriate at first; the boy is genuinely confused and distressed. But in time it becomes more obvious that he is just being himself, and the sometimes overly literal answers are just part of his charm. We laugh with him and we grow to care about him.
We follow Christopher’s sleuthing throughout the show as he discovers some terrible truths about his family. It is ironic that he comments at one point on metaphors, saying, “People don’t really have skeletons in their closets,” when in fact, his parents really do. We often feel let down on Christopher’s behalf by people’s lack of patience and their inability to understand him. We come to realize finally that all of the characters are flawed in some way. We were left with a better understanding not only of Christopher, or of people on the spectrum, but of people in general.
Presented by Center Theatre Group, The National Theatre production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” will run through September 10th 2017 at 8pm Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 pm and 8 pm Saturdays and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. . The Tony Award-winning new play by Simon Stephens is adapted from Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel and directed by Tony winner Marianne Elliott (“War Horse”). There will be an ASL interpreted performance during the matinee on September 9th with the amazing Francine Stern. For tickets go to the website For tickets go to Center Theatre Group or call 213-972-4400. Tickets are $25-$130.
Read Joan Alperin’s review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”