The big takeaway from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the glimpsed exposure to what goes through the mind of a special person—in this case someone with an autism spectrum condition like Asperger’s.
Round House Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s cherished novel is borne on the shoulders of its extraordinary lead actor Harrison Bryan, and to a lesser degree, the engaging design work on which the show is heavily invested.
The story begins with a dead dog speared by a pitchfork (or, garden fork, as the Brits say). At its side is 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Bryan), a precocious mathematics prodigy and automatic truth-teller who catalogues details like a computer but is confused by metaphors and nuance, afflicted with extreme obsessive-compulsive behavior and screams when touched.
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Christopher decides to investigate the animal’s demise. But what may sound like the start of a children’s detective adventure becomes a remarkable coming-of-age experience as he explores the physical and emotional worlds around him, learns more about himself and the complicated dramas of adults—specifically his unhappy but caring father (Cody Nickell) with whom he lives and a mother (Tonya Beckman) whom he hasn’t seen in years.
Somewhat confusingly and entirely unnecessarily, the play is first presented as a recitation of a story Christopher wrote, read by his teacher Siobhan (warmly portrayed by Tessa Klein), before being turned into a school play—so Act II is in essence, a play within a play. It’s hard to tell and doesn’t matter.
The show is most rewarding as a reflection on the substance of subjective reality. Christopher’s reception and understanding of external stimuli may be farther from the norm than most, but we are reminded that everyone sees, hears, processes and concludes differently, resulting in the myriad thoughts, reactions and ideologies that constitute humanity.
Christopher’s internal response to the world is made external by Bryan’s strenuously convincing performance and an array of inventive visual and sound effects, video projections and choreographed movement. We learn that quiet, enclosed spaces, strawberry milkshakes and the incorruptible order of mathematics make him feel safe; lies and figurative language confuse him; disorder and aggressiveness cause him to shut down. Numbers, colors, shapes and formulas projected on the set around him express the vital code by which Christopher makes sense of things.
His protracted quest from his suburban home to the alien nerve-center of London in Act II is obviously meant to be the play’s visual design showcase. What is surely a harrowingly suspenseful sequence on the page is strained and repetitive on stage but effectively portrays the sensory overload of the city’s transportation system on a mind like Christopher’s, not conditioned to screening out gratuitous sights and sounds. More vivid and affecting are the threatening moments which cause him to drop to the ground and make a shell of his body, rocking and moaning in a bath of scabrous red light and electrical hissing.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
Projection designer Jared Mezzocchi shares director credit with Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette—proof of the attention paid to the visual effects in the show. But even high-quality technical wizardry is a poor substitute for drama and fortunately Rilette knows this, ensuring that the play focuses on what he called “the achingly human narrative.”
Bryan delivers on that intention in an inspiring, painfully sensitive performance. Front and center onstage for the entire play, his portrayal is consummate and courageous, sentiment-free and fully committed, for Christopher is always “on,” evidenced by a variety of never-still quirks and fidgeting. Bryan effortlessly shuttles back and forth between outsized agony, sustained curiosity and uninhibited joy in a performance that ultimately feels like an affirmation of life.
The other characters, including Christopher’s parents, are not as well written and are used more like props, possibly because what we’re watching is a representation of Christopher’s story, from his point of view.
The play also suffers from a lack of editing. In addition to the overdone London tube scene, much of Act II could be cut—the rollout of action scenes starts to become more transactional than dramatic.
But structural flaws aside, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an original and insightful offering which reminds us how raw and strange and sensational existence is.
The production’s dependence on digital stagecraft is sometimes misguided and overused, but Bryan’s astounding performance and Round House’s ability to take us somewhere new—a peek inside the human mind—is revelatory and mysterious and well worth a visit to the theater.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens. Based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Ryan Rilette & Jared Mezzocchi. Featuring Harrison Bryan, Tessa Klein, Cody Nickell, Tonya Beckman, Laura C. Harris, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Cody LeRoy Wilson, Eric Hissom, Kathryn Tkel and Kimberly Schraf. Scenic Design: Paige Hathaway. Lighting Design: Sherrice Mojgani. Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny. Sound Design: Andre Pluess. Projection Design: Jared Mezzocchi. Choreography: Orange Grove Dance’s Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves. Stage Manager: Che Wernsman. Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Roy Maurer.