It’s tough to capture emotion and the process of a character’s mind, not only in how the role is written and others respond to him or her, but also in every aspect of the production, from design to how the ensemble moves. It’s been done in avant-garde theater (Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s production of Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed comes to mind), but it’s hard to think of another large-scale piece of theater that works as well in this regard as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
In Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel — reportedly the most popular novel in England for years, until Fifty Shades of Grey came along — and notably in Marianne Elliott’s production, the world created to represent central character Christopher’s mind is stunningly complex.
The original National Theatre of London production won the Olivier Award for best new play in 2013, and then it transferred to Broadway, and won the 2015 Tony for best play. A national tour brings it to the Winspear Opera House as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series.
Christopher, played by Adam Langdon (Benjamin Wheelwright in some performances), is a 15-year-old accused of killing a neighbor’s dog. He loved that dog, Wellington, and is determined to find who did it.
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Although Christopher is never diagnosed by Haddon or Stephens, it’s clear he has some kind of behavioral/developmental issue (most readers and audiences conclude he’s on the autism spectrum, but autism advocates are critical of the novel and play).
His mind is mathematically brilliant but clearly works in ways many of us are not used to. He doesn’t like to be touched, for instance, and doesn’t often take a direct path to get where he wants, mentally or physically.
What’s fascinating about the story as realized in Elliott’s production is how the scenic design (Bunny Christie, also costumes), lighting (Paule Constable), video (Finn Ross) and sound (Ian Dickinson) offer insight into Christopher’s mind.
To add to that, choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (of a dance group called Frantic Assembly) create movement for the ensemble that propels the story in innovative ways. Christopher might be carried by others as he’s imagining himself as an astronaut, or he might be lifted perpendicular to the stage floor to walk around the three sides of Christie’s boxlike set as he searches for answers.
Langdon’s portrayal works in tandem with everything around him, and gives us a character who invites both sympathy and frustration — probably not dissimilar to the feelings his father (Gene Gillette, who like most actors in the ensemble plays multiple roles) and mysterious mother (Felicity Jones Latta) have about him. That clearly affected their relationship, and therefore Christopher’s to them.
The rest of the ensemble (Christopher Maier, Brian Robert Burns, John Hemphill, Geoffrey Wade, Francesca Choy-Kee, Amelia White, Robyn Kerr and J. Paul Nicholas), often sitting or observing around the edges of the box, is almost like a Greek chorus, even if they don’t often comment on the action orally.
Maria Elena Ramirez does as the teacher who expresses Christopher’s thoughts from his notebook and adds metatheatricality, suggesting to him that his search might become a play.
It’s hard to see how any of this would work as well without Christie’s set, filled with graph-paper-like grids on the three sides and the raked stage, and often used as a screen for projections of maps and illustrations. It makes for a lovely geometry with the movement of the actors, like you could create constellations from the points between them and the scenery.
The script is constructed well enough that when regional theaters start producing it, there probably won’t be limits to the imagination of the directors, designers, actors and audiences.