insightful in-depth reviews

1, Mar 2017
Adam Langdon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo: Joan Marcus

Curiosity, in this case, killed the dog

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Marianne Elliott for national tour.

The hero of this play is, in part, a junior version of Sherlock Holmes. He is highly intelligent and analytical but lacking in social skills. Holmes, you will recall, was called a sociopath by his companion, Dr. Watson.

The title quotes Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, and the characters cite Holmes by name. Playwright Simon Stephens based the play on the popular children’s book by Mark Haddon, and Marianne Elliott (of War Horse) directed it creatively.

Christopher Boone is a 15-year-old who’s gifted at math but won’t allow himself to be touched (except for brief palm-to-palm contacts), and can’t understand feelings. To him, everything must be literal. The action starts when Chris discovers the dead body of a neighbor’s dog, and his curiosity impels him to launch an investigation. This mystery is solved at the end of Act I, then Chris moves on to a disheartening discovery about his parents. The positive conclusion shows Chris dealing with a family crisis and trying to make sense of the world.

Visual and sonic effects make the production memorable as they reflect the feelings that are in the mind of the main character. One vivid scene has Chris literally climbing the walls. It’s a fine accomplishment to examine what it must be like to deal with a personality disorder. Chris suffers from a condition not named in the play, possibly a form of autism, which causes him to panic when he’s confronted by strangers. Adam Langdon plays the young man at a feverish pitch.

Healthcare professionals tell me that autistic teenagers do not necessarily speak with high ferocity; many of them are calm and quiet. Therefore it was not a requirement for Langdon to talk as intensely as he did. The author of the novel wrote that he’s “not an expert on autism spectrum disorder or Asperger syndrome” and “Curious Incident is not about any specific disorder. It’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”

So it clearly was the director’s choice to have the actor speak loudly at high pitch all the time. Langdon made the awkwardly anxious protagonist of Dear Evan Hansen seem like a genial party animal in comparison. Others in the cast also spoke in a highly stylized, off-putting manner. A softer approach would have made the person more appealing, more relatable. (A YouTube of the original London production presents a much gentler Chris.)

I have a hunch that the director decided that subtlety would be lost on road-tour audiences in large theaters, so she specified exaggerated, hyperbolic line deliveries. One consequence of this larger-than-life stylization is that some of the play’s dramatic scenes emerged as comedy which elicited guffaws from the audience.

Gene Gillette was sympathetic as Chris’s father, displaying more humanity than anyone else in the cast. Maria Elena Ramirez, Brian Robert Burns, Geoffrey Wade, Felicity Jones Latta and Amelia White performed well in their multiple assignments.

The best parts of the production were Chris’s train ride to London and his adventures in the subway. Exciting projections and lighting effects (by Finn Ross and Paule Constable) reflected the sensory overload that Chris experienced on his journey. Maps, street lights, moving trains and a staircase became almost unbearable, just as they were for the character.

The set by Bunny Christie was dominated by numerically-ordered graph paper, somewhat similar to the high-tech set for Dear Evan Hansen now on Broadway. This play, from 2014, came first.