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

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Review: <em>The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time</em> at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

When we first meet Christopher John Francis Boone, his arms are wrapped around a dog skewered by a pitchfork. The dog is dead. And so begins The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both the beloved 2003 novel by Mark Haddon and the National Theatre’s stage production, which opened in London in 2012 and on Broadway on Sunday.

The initial narrative drive of the story is to discover who did the dog in. But the central conceit is that Christopher is autistic, possessed of a mind that calculates like a machine, runs on facts and logic alone, and can’t compute quirky human inventions like figures of speech, metaphors, or belief in God. The dead dog is window dressing; the drama is in Christopher’s head. The genius, and heartbreak, of Haddon’s novel is witnessing Christopher’s ability to navigate his world with precision and detachment as it crumbles around him and his inability to articulate or understand his pain.

It’s tough material for theatrical adaptation. But The Curious Incident largely succeeds in its storytelling on stage by sticking close to its source. Most scenes mirror their literary predecessors and playwright Simon Stephens generously borrows from Haddon’s simple dialogue while efficiently editing Christopher’s scientific and mathematical rants into a few tight monologues that illustrate a character who feels at home in the stars and often like an alien on Earth. As Christopher, Alexander Sharp, in his Broadway debut, manages to capture the mix of boyish innocence with the burden of a brilliant brain, layered with a variety of physical tics that convey Christopher’s personal disorientation and isolation.

Naturally, other humans inhabit his world as well, even if he preferred they didn’t. Christopher lives with his father, Ed (Ian Barford), who’s a bit unpolished and often exacerbated but clearly devoted to his son, at least from the audience’s perspective. Siobhan (Francesca Faridany) is Christopher’s teacher, something of a lighthouse for him when storms rage internally, as they often do. Christopher’s mother (Enid Graham) is a prominent presence, though to say more would be a spoiler. Barford and Graham bring volatility and vulnerability to their roles, sharply contrasting Sharp’s stoic determination. An energetic ensemble constantly swaps roles, portraying policemen, neighbors, and an assortment of other strangers (to Christopher, pretty much everyone is a stranger). The multiple roles are economical, of course, but they also underscore the way Christopher sees the world: populated not by individuals but by interchangeable obstacles with suspicious motives.

The real star of this production, however, is its extraordinary design (Bunny Christie for scenic, Paule Constable for lighting, Finn Ross for video). The stage is enclosed on three sides by towering walls, allowing it to be both claustrophobic and vast. It also doubles as the interior of Christopher’s head, using an avalanche of projected words or the visual assault of flashing bulbs to evoke his confusion and fear. Sometimes projections splice the space like a graph charting the space-time continuum, or cleverly evoke a speeding train or a menacing escalator (for this show, the mezzanine is recommended to get the full 3D impact). A long sequence in the second act, in which Christopher journeys to London and is forced to negotiate a train and subway station, is choreographed like a video-game ballet where every pedestrian is the enemy, every sign screams danger, and yet, at least for the audience, there’s still beauty in the chaos.

While the visual spectacle brings Christopher’s grand adventure vividly to life, the transition to the stage isn’t entirely rewarding. The novel is carefully constructed from the point of view of its main protagonist; everyone else is filtered through his particular and peculiar lens. The reader is invited to sit in Christopher’s world and look out with him. On stage, the audience can only observe Christopher, and that distance dilutes some of the emotional punch. Haddon’s original book takes the guise of a homework assignment Christopher wrote to chronicle the mystery of the murdered dog. That device felt organic. The play, in the same vein, is meant to be his school’s adaptation of his written story. This ploy feels forced and underdeveloped and cheekily meta. Similarly, Christopher’s observations, though often amusing in their logic, aren’t meant as jokes (he can’t comprehend humor). So the decision to play some lines and key moments for laughs feels disingenuous to Christopher’s abilities and sensibilities; he wouldn’t get the jokes so the audience’s laughter just pushes them further away from understanding him.

But perhaps the strangest departure from the novel is in the conclusion. For having solved the mystery of the dead dog and making his way solo to London, Christopher proclaims himself brave and able to do anything. The play has less faith in him. Rather than a statement of certainty, Christopher poses it as a question to Siobhan: Does this mean I can do anything? He asks her three times and she doesn’t answer. Curtain. Perhaps her hesitation is more realistic; his autism, of course, still augurs a lifetime of endless challenges ahead. But in wresting this triumph from Christopher, the play seems more inclined to protect rather than free him and present him simply as someone to root for, rather than as a singular mind worth probing.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened on October 5 for an open-ended run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.