The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
by Elyse Sommer
If you've read the book, as I did, there's nothing been-there-seen- that about the truly electrifying production from London's National Theatre now having its Broadway premiere. If you arrive "cold" at the Barrymore Theatre, as my husband did, you'll have no trouble following the story of the 15-year old Christopher John Francis Boone, who's a math genius but also suffers from a form of autism that makes him fixated on the truth and interpreting things literally rather than metaphorically. This literalness sends him on a mission to find out who murdered the neighbour's dog that also bring to light some disturbing truths about his own family.
What makes Simon Stephen's adaptation even better than the book which, is that he's freed the text from having the audience see everything through Christopher's voice, without losing it's offbeat charm. To do so he's used Siobhan, the teacher at Christopher's school for special needs kids, to read aloud from a book written by him as part of a school assignment. This also supports the conceit that what we're seeing is a play actually created from Christopher's book. A bit too neatly contrived for family audience appeal? Sure. But it works beautifully.
Fortunately, the New York production is blessed with the incredibly talented London crafts team. Marianne Elliott (who co-directed War Horse, another National Theatre hit based on a juvenile novel). Elliott and her company have recreated the script's texture, visually and orally echoing how Christopher's obsession with order and truth is challenged as his Sherlock Holmes-like adventure impacts on his relationship with his parents. (To emphasize the importance of the detective story plot, Mark Haddon chose an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and a character named Inspector Gregory in "The Silver Blaze," a short story that was also a film).
Even if the story didn't warrant all the fans it gathered in book format, its staging is in itself a breathtaking achievement. The walls of the black and white geometric set by BunnyChristie, who also designed the just right costumes, function as a blackboard. With the addition of Paule Constable's lighting and Finn Ross's video design those walls are transformed into various locations that include road maps, words and even a moving staircase. The floor too is used to build on Christopher's Holmesian discoveries.
It all adds up to a riot of visually illustrated emotional upheaval. Adrian Sutton's music and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett's choreography further complete this all-around sensory perception of this young outlier's mindset, and at times make you feel as if you're watching a musical.
While my London colleague Lizzie Loveridge saw Curious Incident . . . with a British cast ( review), I don't think she'd be any less impressed with their American counterparts. Alex Sharp, is simply extraordinary in a Broadway debut as the ink still drying on his degree from Julliard. (Christoper, would cite this description of a document that's printed as another reason he thinks a metaphor should be called a lie).
Sharp dominates the story, (with Taylor Trensch, one of the children in early productions of Matilda, at some performances). However, the entire American cast is superb. Each cast member plays a key role but also multi-tasks as some of the various background characters.
Francesca Faridany, in the expanded role of the schoolteacher Siobhan, moves gracefully in and out of the action. As this secondary narrator she functions as another form of Christopher's mind.
Helen Carey is especially winning as Mrs. Alexander, the neighbor who inadvertently sets of Christopher's explosive awareness of his own family situation. The Battenberg Cake, a sponge cake which when cut displays a yellow and pink check pattern, she offers him provides one of the many funny ways of familiarizing us with such Christopher quirks as an aversion to eating anything yellow.
Ian Barford and Enid Graham both tap into the strain that a child like Christopher places on a relationship. Both capture the sense of helpless despair of dealing with him coupled with genuine love for the boy.
Some major secondary roles by the ensemble feature Mercedes Herrero as Mrs. Shears, the owner of Wellington, the dog that's killed, and Ben Horner as the husband who deserted her.
At the risk of being a spoiler, while Wellington is first on stage, but as the victim in of this unusual detective story, another very much alive dog supplied by Special Tees Animal rescue, also gets a turn on stage.
Unless you're a confirmed pessimist, you'll not be surprised that Christopher ultimately gets to take that Maths A-Level. And as he clearly deserves an A* so does Alex Sharp — in fact, so does everyone connected with this exhilarating eye-popping production.
Postscript: Don't rush off after the cast takes it's well deserved curtain call. There's a little surprise on top of it that you won't want to miss.