Readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should recognize the title. It comes from a quote spoken by Sherlock Holmes in one of Conan Doyle’s short mysteries, Silver Blaze. In conversation with a Scotland Yard detective, Holmes wants to draw attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. When the Scotland Yard detective tells Holmes that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.”
Transferred from the Royal National Theatre in London to Broadway, and now on its first US national tour, currently performing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 25, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells of young Christopher Boone (Adam Langdon). He’s a fifteen-year-old English boy from Swindon with a series of conditions. Though none of those conditions are specified, his behavioral difficulties range from Asperger’s and high-functioning autism, plus he’s a mathematical savant. There’s also another issue: he can’t be touched. He’s Rain Man as an English teenager from South West England, 78 miles from London.
True to the spirit of the title and its origins, Christopher takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes after the discovery of his own curious incident concerning a dog; an occurrence that presumably really did take place at night. His neighbor’s pet, Wellington, is found murdered, impaled by a garden fork. It’s only when that neighbor, an understandably distraught Mrs. Shears (Kathy McCafferty), finds Christopher standing over the body of her animal and accuses him of the death that the boy decides to find out who really committed the murder.
Based on the Mark Haddon novel of the same name, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time alters the structure of the book. Where the novel was written exclusively from young Christopher’s point-of-view, the play is narrated by Christopher’s school teacher and mentor, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez). She’s reading from a project she encouraged Christopher to write. At one point, she even breaks from the manuscript on her lap, looks up and tells the boy, “It’s very good, Christopher. I like the details. It’s quite realistic.”
Because of Christopher’s autism spectrum, the boy has a unique vision of what is honest and what is not. “I always tell the truth,” he insists. And because of the play’s design – we’re inside Christopher’s mind – we tend to see the same things in the way that Christopher does. When the fifteen-year-old discusses the meaning of a metaphor with his teacher, he concludes that ‘metaphor’ is really a different word for a lie. After all, no one really has skeletons in their cupboard, so when they say it, it’s clearly a lie. Plus, in a theological conversation with Reverend Peters (Geoffrey Wade), the idea that God and heaven is in another kind of place altogether doesn’t make sense to the boy. Aware of the universe, its age, the nature of black holes, and what it would take for people who have died to get to heaven, Christopher concludes, “There isn’t another kind of place altogether.” Unable to compete, the reverend cuts short the conversation.
By the play’s second half, when Siobhan tells the boy they should present a school play of his real-life story based on his project, you realize that everything you’ve seen and will continue to see was always a play-within-a-play. A humorous result of this device occurs when another of Christopher’s school teachers playing herself is continuously put out by having to repeat her brief lines of dialog made redundant by the narrator who has already quoted them.
While Curious Incident is not a musical, the play’s original London director Marianne Elliot, incorporates the aid of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett to supply the ever-continuing graceful movement of the cast as they assume grouped positions and characterize everyday objects that Christopher encounters. There’s also an extremely funny mime that the young boy employs as he suffers through the trails and tribulations of having to use a public toilet on a speeding train, then negotiating the blower with his wet hands.
However, during a lengthy, heart-breaking moment when the boy’s mother (Felicity Jones Latta) has to explain things to her son, things seem to come to a temporary halt. Narratively, what she’s saying is of great importance, but because of the play’s lightning speed pace, it feels as though brakes were suddenly applied. With a broken rhythm, the result may be a wandering mind for just a few moments.
In the way Christopher’s senses will be overwhelmed, so will ours, in a literal sense. Presented in an electronic variation of a black-box theatre, its floor and walls project a dazzling array of sonic effects. Numbers, words, flashing images and maps appear, floating in all directions as if we’re witnessing the very images flashing through Christopher’s mind, accompanied by an overpowering cacophony of sound.
Occasionally there’s a danger of the light show, with its all-encompassing visual effects, suffocating the moment, often with an accompanying, overly abrasive soundtrack that pierces the senses and continues longer than you want, particularly when it’s not altogether clear why the effects with its shower of ever-flowing red dots are occurring in the way they are. It’s as if the theatrical box of tricks can’t help but show off, and someone forgot to say when. But there’s also much to admire in the way the light show can become the street on which Christopher lives, a train ride from Swindon to London, the information desk at London’s Paddington Station, or the platform at the Paddington underground as Christopher navigates his way through the city on the Bakerloo line. The electronically elaborate, detailed designs are blazing and unceasingly inventive.
The mystery of the murder is cleared halfway through the production, which makes clear that the play isn’t really about the solving of a crime, nor is it exclusively about the boy’s disorders. Rather, like the novel, the play examines routine, customs, separation, honesty, the playing with language and most importantly, the confusion that comes with miscommunication in everyday speech. If everyone was as clear and as direct as Christopher when speaking, there would never be a failure to communicate. The play expresses that with both warmth and humor, along with the drama.
In London, the play won seven of its eight 2013 Laurence Olivier Award nominations, including Best New Play. On Broadway, it won five of its six 2015 Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. Gammage shows why. While Wellington the dog did nothing to deserve its fate, it’s the catalyst that sets a young boy off on a journey of self-discovery, his position in the world, and an awareness of what his future holds. A curious incident indeed, Watson, but a singular one that you should treat yourself to enjoying while it remains in town.
Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus