This title of a new play by Simon Stephens may seem long-winded and awkward, but it is an accurate account of what a child with Asperger’s Syndrome might answer when asked to describe a moment in his recent past. That startling moment in the play happens the moment the lights come up on the figure of a boy keening over the body of a dead dog under a lit street lamp in a small town in England.
Asperger’s is a high functioning form of autism and those who suffer from it lack social skills, are not able to read others’ body language, can’t start or maintain a conversation. They can’t take turns talking, appear to lack empathy and dislike any changes in routine. They can’t bear to be touched, except in a ritualistic way by someone they instinctively trust. Most importantly they must always tell the truth and waste no words to avoid sounding blunt.
So, from the boy in this play, called Christopher Boone, the title is just his way of telling what he experienced. The opening moment is arresting, and as the boy is pulled away by the police, as he would seem to be the most likely assassin of the dog, we are immediately drawn into this unlikely story.
The play is an adaptation of the novel by Mark Haddon and it’s now on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, in a new production following the recent one in London’s West End. Both were staged by Marianne Elliott, choreographed (it’s not a musical, but there is considerable incidental music by Adrian Sutton) by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Equal contributors to the collaboration are Bunny Christie on scenery and costumes, Paule Constable on lighting, and Finn Ross on video design. Each of these artists has been associated with the National Theatre of Britain, but except for Steven Hoggett (who staged the brilliant fight sequence in Rocky, the recent musical) I’d never seen or noticed the work of any of them except Ms. Elliott, who we remember for the staging of the equally brilliant War Horse in 2011.
And though most of the company has Broadway credits, I had no conscious awareness of any of them either. In the lead role (and it’s a whopper) a brand new actor, out of Juilliard only since May of this year, is Alex Sharp, who is giving the most sensational debut performance I can recall, in a role that requires a British accent, a supple and agile body, the gift of comic delivery of the very offbeat Asperger’s dialogue and a persona that is appealing from the moment we meet him. Mr. Sharp is in full command of all these qualities; it’s a towering performance in a very difficult role.
Despite all of his character’s crippling deficiencies, Mr. Sharp is able to focus on his course as Christopher turns detective, determined to track down and punish whoever killed the innocent animal. The story that follows is mundane and would do for a low budget film noir. In flashback, as witness to the constant bickering between his mother and father, he accepts what he thinks will be her temporary departure and when told that she died of a heart attack on the train ride home, he accepts that too. It isn’t until months later he discovers letters from her, in a hidden chest, that he learns she is alive and living in London.
His focus shifts to finding her, and on his own he sets off for the first time in his life, by train, on foot, and even on the London tubes in search of the address listed on the envelopes of her letters. With all of the above directors, choreographers and designers helping, Christopher’s journey is staged thrillingly, far more effectively than it would be on film where everything would be real. Here, the incredibly functional setting easily transformed into a building, a train compartment, a tube station complete with tracks, an escalator, a series of closets and whatever else was needed.
I was reminded of how much more dazzling was the National Theatre’s War Horse, which also told a mundane story of a boy’s love for his horse, and his journey to the war zone of World War I where they were re-united. The film, even as directed by Steven Spielberg, was diminished to the size of the tale itself, and all the magic of the Marianne Elliott stage version was gone, leaving behind just another movie.
One almost worries about Alex Sharp, for one can only hope that he continues to find material that he can make as organic as he does here. Others lend strong support, particularly Francesca Faridany as his teacher, the one who suggests he tell his story by writing it, and by Ian Barford as his father. But each of the many actors, most of whom play three and four roles, are authentic and adapt quickly to the demands of the staging, which are considerable. Everyone seems to appear in all of the ensemble scenes, playing locals one minute, Londoners the next.
Opening early in the new season, Tony voters and all the other Awards voters must remember what a stunning triumph is this early entry with the cumbersome title.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is onstage at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (between Broadway and 8th Ave), NYC.
Tickets and details
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.