Based on its title alone, you might assume that “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a detective story. You would necessarily not be wrong.
Indeed, within the first few pages of Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel, upon which this multiple Olivier and Tony Award-winning play is based, its 15-year-old narrator, Christopher (who says he never lies), states quite plainly that it is a detective story.
It may not be a lie, but it’s not quite the whole truth, either. For Christopher is himself the detective, and the case he sets out to solve will only lead him into a mystery he finds much more perplexing, because he faces challenges most of us do not.
Although his condition is never specifically stated, he exhibits the behavioral and cognitive quirks of someone on the autism spectrum, with symptoms most closely resembling Asperger’s Syndrome. Although he is highly intelligent — enamored with math, equipped with an encyclopedic array of knowledge, and adept at using logic to solve complex problems — he is at a loss when it comes to human connection. Unable to relate through empathy or to read non-verbal signals, he finds himself continually confused and mistrustful of others, and their contradictory behavior and statements seem an existential threat to him.
To put it simply, he is completely bewildered by the world of human beings.
The brilliance of “Curious Incident” in its original book form was that it managed to convey the unique perspective of this character, an outsider to the “normal” world which most of us take for granted, by communicating in his voice and allowing us to be inside his experience of that world – one which confuses and terrifies him with its deception and inconsistency. In adapting it for the stage, playwright Simon Stephens was faced with the challenge of recreating this effect in a different way, and the method he chose – to turn Christopher’s story into a sort of multi-layered puzzle box presented as a play-within-a-play – succeeds in the highest degree.
Played out on Bunny Christie’s innovative, theatrical set, Stephens’ smartly funny script takes us through a journey that begins as Christopher finds a neighbor’s dog murdered in a garden and decides, against his father’s wishes, to find out who killed it.
Elaborate animated projections (created by Finn Ross) illustrate the young protagonist’s thought processes, with some help from a spritely techno music accompaniment (by Adrian Sutton); and the clever use of primary colors in the lighting (Paul Constable) and costumes (Bunny Christie) help to organize things into the kind of clear patterns that help him make sense of the world.
An ensemble of players, most stepping in and out of multiple roles, helps him to act out his story while his para-professional mentor, Siobhan, guides him through the confusing task of navigating the world. They create and inhabit every situation in which Christopher finds himself, whether an amusing fact-finding expedition through his neighborhood or the terrifying London Underground, with clear specificity and theatrical panache.
Lastly, the whole package is expertly staged by Marianne Elliott, earning her Best Director in both London and New York; she takes all the swirling threads of Christopher’s world and arranges them into a visually arresting and engrossing multi-media game, in which the audience is invited not only to investigate the titular mystery (which is really not difficult, after all, for those of us not facing the same perceptual obstacles as Christopher), but to root for this young man as he struggles to comprehend the deeper enigmas in his own life story.
Adam Langdon delivers an outstanding performance. His Christopher is mesmerizing; capturing the physical and vocal peculiarities of the character as he conveys a full spectrum of emotional response, from terror to exuberance (sometimes within a heartbeat), he carries the piece squarely on his young shoulders with clarity and consistency and never lets it slip for a moment.
Maria Elena Ramirez, whose Siobhan exudes patience and compassion yet never becomes cloying, delivers an exceptional performance. Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta negotiate subtle complexity with their respective portrayals of Christopher’s father and mother, whose heartbreakingly human drama lies at the core of the “incident.”
It’s that familiar humanity that makes “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” so much more than just a clever and creative exercise in stagecraft. For underneath all the entertaining and intricately plotted fun is a sense of melancholy, a longing. Through Christopher we can recognize our own frustration with the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face in connecting to each other; and when he retreats into the comfortable security of facts and numbers, with their reliable constancy and their inability to present themselves as anything other than what they are, who among us cannot relate? We all need a “safe space,” after all.
However, retreat is not the answer, and Christopher knows it. His “detective story” ultimately teaches us that the only way to solve a problem is to make an effort, no matter how impossible it may seem to us. To connect, we must communicate, and if Christopher can learn to do it, with the difficulties he faces, what excuse do any of us have?
In the end, “Curious Incident” is not a play about broken connection, but a play about finding ways to repair it. Life-affirming, profound, and joyful, it’s a triumph of theatrical imagination and an experience not to be missed.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Aug 2 – Sept. 10Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave.