NEW YORK – When the theater seems plagued by unimpressive new works, a bright one usually arrives. This fall, it is the British import “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” an engrossing and revealing play by Simon Stephens based on the successful 2003 English novel of the same name by Mark Haddon.
It began its theatrical life at London’s National Theater, and is now having a commercial run on the West End; here with a strong American cast, it is flourishing at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is the tale of Christopher Boone, brilliantly played by newcomer Alexander Sharp as a 15-year-old from Swindon, Wiltshire. In the novel, Christopher describes himself as a “mathematician with behavioral difficulties,” though a doctor might say he has high-functioning autism or savant syndrome or Asperger‘s syndrome. Mr. Haddon has written in his blog that the novel he wrote was not based on any specific “disorder,” but was a story about “difference.”
Christopher does have outward idiosyncrasies: he hates to be touched; he has occasional tantrums and sudden outbursts. He loves the color red, but not yellow; he loves his pet rat Toby and model trains, and we find out that he is a math genius. He is very fond of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. When he discovers that his neighbor Mrs. Shears’s (Mercedes Herrero) dog Wellington has been murdered with a pitchfork, he decides to become a “Sherlockian” gumshoe and find the culprit. What Christopher doesn’t realize is that this will also lead him into family matters that he didn’t know existed.
The novel is narrated in the first-person by Christopher. Although the first act of Mr. Stephens’s play is narrated by Christopher’s special needs teacher, Siobhan (artfully performed by Francesca Faridany), reading to us from the diary that she probably asked Christopher to write, we still get the advantage of seeing all the characters through Christopher’s eyes. Interestingly, in Act Two, Mr. Stephens lets Christopher decide that his story is a play and allows him to take over the narration, giving the story more cohesion.
Directed by Marianne Elliott, who won a Tony Award for another British play, “War Horse,” which I felt was too simplistic and overly melodramatic, this production is quite brilliant and never staid. Ms. Elliott fills it with theatricality: designer Bunny Christie’s three-walled, grid-designed set is bathed in continuously inventive lighting by Paule Constable and with apt videos by Finn Ross. After exhausting stage technology, Ms. Elliott hired two excellent choreographers, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, to keep the cast moving and the play constantly flowing, accompanied by appropriate music by Adrian Sutton.
The cast she has assembled couldn’t be better. As Christopher, Mr. Sharp, a 24-year-old who had just graduated from Juilliard last June, is making a magnificent Broadway debut. He captures Christopher’s emotion, quirks and genius. Christopher is a handful for his father Ed (played well by Ian Barford), who wrestles with their emotional up-and-down dad-son relationship.
When Christopher’s mother Judy (touchingly played by Enid Graham) goes off to London, Ed tells Christopher that she has died. Christopher finds the hidden letters she has sent her son from London, and sets off to find her in the city.
The tough and terrific tension and growth he encounters on the trip and in the frightening trauma of the London underground is played out and staged with fury and at a high emotional pitch.
Although Christopher slowly matures with every encounter, Mr. Sharp always emphasizes the doubts, the bewilderment and the stark terror a person like Christopher lives with day by day. Mr. Sharp throws himself into the character in a performance that is remarkable in its insights and is especially powerful in stirring scenes with his father and mother and teacher.
Although the entire cast plays multiple roles and acts often as an ensemble, all get their share of the glory of this significant and beautiful new play.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.