By Isaac Butler
Theatre is the slowest of art forms. When Doubleday published Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it was, if not quite the vanguard of a trend, certainly an early adopter. The book cleverly married a first-person exploration of autism with two well-known genres, the British provincial mystery and the coming of age story. In this, it followed in the footsteps of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which took the hardboiled gumshoe novel and remade it through the eyes of a narrator with Tourette’s.
Haddon’s debut novel was a sensation and helped kick off a decade-plus-long cultural moment for autistic (and quasi-autistic) characters that continues today. We can see that moment in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, in the BBC’s new take on Sherlock, in Detective Sonya Cross on The Bridge, and Abed on Community, or in the ways that “on the spectrum” has entered our vocabulary. Now, eleven years after the book’s publication, and eight after I devoured it in one sitting on a plane to Washington, D.C., The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a Broadway show, thanks to a production imported (minus its original cast) from the UK, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by War Horse’s Marianne Elliott.
Incident might seem a, well, curious choice for adaptation, as the book is a triumph of using voice to reveal internality. The story of young Christopher Boone’s valiant attempts to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog is related entirely from his perspective. Haddon smartly replicates Christopher’s consciousness through text and diagrams, relating the kinds of things Christopher is likely to notice (how many trees he can see out of a train window, for example) and the things he will be confused by (i.e. facial expressions). It trains the reader to read around Christopher, noticing things he can’t, while remaining firmly on his side.
Internality can’t really be replicated on the stage as it can in prose. Dramas like Arthur Kopit’s Wings, which takes place entirely inside the mind of a stroke victim, or Sarah Ruhl’s Euridice, which theatrically realizes metaphors for its character’s feelings of loss, have certainly tried, but the stage remains for the most part the realm of the external.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time solves this problem in a couple of devilishly clever ways. First, it keeps a large amount of Christopher’s narration (here played by the excellent Alexi Sharp) through the device of a book he himself has written that is being read by Siobhan, a therapist at his school played by Francesca Faridany. Second, Marianne Eliottt ditches naturalism entirely in presentation. The set is an empty box with walls of graph paper. Environments are created through props, boxes pulled out of the walls, and choreography by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, the go-to team for imaginative uses of bodies on stage. The production is all whirling bodies, electronic music, multimedia and clear, simple acting choices. In this, it is deeply reminiscent of the work of the British director Simon McBurney both with his own company Complicté and on Broadway.
The end result is an engaging, funny, often quite moving two and a half hours of near constant spectacle. Curious is a great show to take a friend or family member who casually likes theater so they can fall in love with the possibility of the stage, with what makes theater uniquely theatrical, with the high of sharing an imaginative experience in real time with a few hundred people.
In doing this, Curious excitingly blends an accessible human story to theatrical gestures that grew out of the experimental theater world, which is why the show’s persistent low-grade sloppiness is so frustrating. The choreography outside of the second act’s major set piece is fairly lackluster, and the performers sometimes lack the physical precision necessary to realize it (or perhaps the patience, in the performance I saw, one of the actors cracked each individual knuckle in his fingers loudly and itched himself during a tableau). The actors struggle at times to maintain their dialects, and, without a set or props, seem as unmoored as their bodies in the vast sea of the Barrymore.
More seriously, you may notice that the spectacle comes to be at war with the text, or perhaps that the text gradually loses its nerve. Early in the second act, it is suddenly revealed that the show you are watching is one that Christopher has written, is starring in, and is redirecting on the fly, produced by his special education school. It’s a clever idea, one that Alex Timbers might’ve made a great low budget show out of a decade ago, but it has little relationship to the production we’ve been watching up until then, and, were it not so lightly played, would sink the whole enterprise. Having spent ninety minutes creating its own world that obeys its own rules and warmly invites the audience to do the same, it suddenly changes tack and now tries to create a literal justification for its choices.
Oddly, this has the effect of undermining those choices rather than supporting them. Schools don’t tend to have Broadway show budgets, and Christopher, who hates to be touched, would balk and being lifted, supported and caressed by the cast members during the choreographed moments. The cutesy meta-theatrical jokes that grow out of this conceit are largely clunkers, and while it does allow for a triumphant post-curtain call bit where Christopher solves a math problem before your very eyes! this moment of glory completely undermines the show’s perfect and ambiguous final moment.
Ultimately, Curious Incident is hobbled by adopting McBurney’s theatrical style without also importing his exactitude and sense of refinement. His taste, in other words. As in Hoggett’s Black Watch, ideas that would be effective in short bursts are extended past the breaking point, or repeated until they’re uninteresting. As in War Horse, it at times feel like impressing you is Elliott’s chief goal, rather than telling a story in as true a way as possible.
Mysteriously—perhaps, curiously—there is something about the play that works regardless. The particulars are often clumsy, yet they have a kind of cumulative power. Some of this can be traced to the quality of the original book, as passages are taken nearly verbatim. But full credit is also due Alex Sharp and Francesca Faridany, who anchor the show with wonderful chemistry. Sharp, whose work on the show is physically and vocally intense enough that he alternates the role at some performances, appears to have nearly limitless energy and charm, and he plays Christopher simply, eschewing awards-baiting caricature. Faridany’s Siobhan is a less showy and more functional role. Siobhan narrates the show, is Christopher’s therapist, and the audience’s surrogate all at once, but Faridany integrates these disparate parts into a compelling, coherent whole.
While The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is ostensibly about Christopher learning the truth about his family as he solves the murder of a dog, the show also becomes a quite moving story of a quasi-parental relationship that emerges between an autistic teacher and his therapist. Thus a sort of magic trick of transference occurs. Siobhan is the audience surrogate and Christopher, in ways first implied and then eventually made overt, is the show. As she cares for him, so do we, and by extension the play that both contains him and is contained by him. By the end of the play, as Christopher asks Siobhan if the last year of his life means he can do anything he sets his mind to, you may find yourself, as I did, struggling to figure out what you’d say to Christopher, torn between the competing desire to give him home and prepare him for the confusing and hostile world in which he’s only just begun to live.