Monday, October 6, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

There are many complex novels that get labeled as incapable of being adapted for the stage and screen. You would think by now that cliche statement would be tossed in a rubbish heap. The National Theatre imports the highly anticipated adaptation of Mark Hadden's popular novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is well worth the wait.

15-year-old Christopher Boone has a brilliant mathematical mind couched within the challenges of autism. Christopher has poor social skills and is prone to sensory overload and cannot stand being touched. One night he goes to visit Wellington, his neighbor's standard poodle, only to discover to his horror that Wellington is dead, stabbed with a garden fork. (that's a pitchfork for us Americans) Briefly detained as the prime suspect he becomes obsessed with solving the crime. What Christopher does not realize is that in his zeal to solve the mystery he will unravel dark family secrets that will forever change his life. It is a journey in reality, fantasy and for this fascinating young man that leads to a sentimental yet surprisingly mature conclusion. 

This is an example of a perfect marriage between playwright and director.  Simon Stephens adaptation and Marianne Elliott's wonderful out of the proverbial box direction is the key to bringing Christopher Boone's story to the stage. Simon Stephens script, framed in a way to evoke the first person narration of Mark Haddon's novel mostly works. Narrated, well actually read, primarily by Christopher's sympathetic teacher and counselor, Siobhan, from the start the audience is aware that the tale will be revealed as Christopher perceives it. What makes it astounding is how organic the technical aspects compliment and vividly enhance the play. The audience enters into the Barrymore Theatre to face a barren stage marked in a grid like graphing paper.  Bunny Christie's scenic design brands the design as the canvas for Christopher Boone's complex need for order and his astounding ability with mathematics.  Combined with Paule Constable's lighting, Finn Ross's video design, Ian Dickerson for Autograph's sound design and Adrian Sutton's music the stage is transformed into the inner workings of Christopher's mind.

Some of the design may remind audiences of the visual concept for the trouble lead character of Ron Howard's film A Beautiful Mind where the way that film's troubled genius' mind saw the world was literally drawn on the screen. What really hammers home in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  is the sensory overload that envelops both Christopher Boone and the viewing audience whenever he is faced with a crisis. To understand how this young man perceives the world and to share in being overwhelmed by the ordinary sights and sounds we easily take for granted as background noise is one of the supreme accomplishments of this remarkable play.

Keeping it all together is director Marianne Elliott, probably best known in the states for her Tony award-winning work on another difficult piece War Horse. Working with a duo of choreographers, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly, Ms. Elliott brings this complicated world to vibrant life.  The ensemble of actors work as a unit to assist and obstruct Christopher on his journey of discovery whether helping him imagine the universe or survive the terrors of the London Underground.
If there is a weakness in Mr. Stephens' script it is the few times in act two, when the tale changes from a story being read to a play being staged that the conceit of "we are watching Christopher's play" is hammered home a bit too literally, such as when Christopher interrupts a scene to make corrections. It is just not needed and would work better if the audience was simply trusted to accept the play as it unfolds. The one exception to that concept that truly works well leads to a marvelous encore for the show and its engaging lead actor. Suffice to say you do not want to miss the curtain call.

Without the perfect leading man, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would fall flat. Making an impressive Broadway debut is recent Julliard graduate, Alex Sharp. Mr. Sharp embodies all of Christopher Boone's eccentricities and challenges without forgetting that Christopher, while deeply challenging to watch at times must also remain for the audience immensely likable, especially when expressing his wonderment with the universe. Mr. Sharp is the center of Curious Incident's universe, without him it would deflate. 

The small ensemble ably supports Mr. Sharp's remarkable performance. Highlights go to Francesca Faridany, as the teacher who encourages Christopher in his determination, Enid Graham as Judy, Christopher's absent mother and Ian Barford as Christopher's weary father, who makes decisions for his family made in the heat of anger and a desire to protect his vulnerable son lead tragically to a deep chasm between father and son. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a challenging play. It is emotionally satisfying, occasionally melodramatic, but leaves its audience with the delight in knowing that Christopher Boone, this marvelous young man with so many obstacles to overcome eventually achieves triumphs that are not at all possible when the play begins. May its audience leave the Barrymore Theatre as equally hopeful and emotionally satisfied.

Please note: due to the physical and emotional exertions required to portray Christopher Boone the role is played by Taylor Trensch at certain performances.

The National Theatre's Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit 

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