The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
“I see everything. Other people are lazy; they don’t see everything.”
A boy of fifteen years, three months, five days indeed can count from a fast moving train the exact number of trees on a hillside, of clouds in the sky, and of hues of green in the meadows passing by. He notes without hesitation that his neighbor is wearing “New Balance trainers with red laces” as he walks by, and he memorizes a map of London in order to find his way from Paddington Station to a house at 451c Chapter Road, London NW2 5NG (where he has never been).
A young boy’s precision-oriented mind that can also prove complex, math problems comes to life visually and physically as the audience enters the world of his brain and all its electronic signaling while witnessing Simon Stephens’ multiple-award-winning play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. What also spins, bumps, and bounces all over SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre stage is a boy’s world of emotional chaos – a world where touch by other human beings is tortuous; where loud noises, bright lights, or crowds can suddenly cause uncontrollable seizures and/or screams; and where retreat into absolute silence amid the noises of his surroundings is sometimes his only way to cope with his autism spectrum disorder.
Seven minutes after midnight, Christopher Boone somehow finds himself in Mrs. Shear’s backyard next to her dog, Wellington, who is very dead with a pitchfork through his body. At first wrongly accused as the perpetrator, Christopher “makes it a project” to find out who is the murderer. His meticulously precise mind works over-time to hunt down in his neighborhood who did the deed, even as his father forbids him to get involved. His search for truth leads him to a shocking discovery about his own father, Ed, with whom he has lived alone since told two years before that his mother, Judy, had died in the hospital of a sudden heart problem. That revelation sends him off on a night-time, cross-city scavenger hunt with few clues how to get his destination while at the same time, he is still determined to take the next day a difficult math exam in order to forge an unlikely path toward university study.
For any other teenage boy, a story about mysteries to be unraveled by his detective work might take on the flavor of a fairly genteel, Hardy Boys book. But for Christopher’s determined sleuthing, discoveries must be made amidst sounds that suddenly scream monstrously, lights that pop and flash to the point of hurting, and people that somehow appear in closed-in, intrusive, scary mobs. Through the inspired, inventive direction of Marianne Elliott, the combined ordered and random thought patterns of Christopher’s mind play out before us along with the full gamut of his many emotional states. All along the way, Ms. Elliott never lets us forget that at the heart of it all, Christopher is just another teenager who has conflicts with his parents, feels misunderstood, has lofty ambitions, and is sometimes ferociously stubborn. And this particular teen is also immensely brave.
So demanding is the role of Christopher that two actors must split the playing, especially on days with matinees. Adam Langdon takes on most evenings (including the opening night I attended), alternating other performances with Benjamin Wheelwright (a veteran of the Broadway cast).
As Christopher, Mr. Langdon’s performance is nothing short of magnificent, mesmerizing, and magical. The sound journey his voice alone takes is phenomenal as he rigorously and methodically speaks each individual word with exacting care in tones that ride up and down the vocal scale and at times, sound almost unworldly. And yet, there is always an everyday boy that can be heard in each word and phrase.
Physically, he at times jerks and twists uncontrollably and at other times, becomes a frozen statue that cannot be moved. He may walk in almost a soldier’s march or may scatter in several directions all at once. His Christopher pooh-poohs theater as an avenue for storytelling; yet Mr. Langdon’s live actions, vocals, and expressions fill the stage with a story that could never be told in the same way on the printed page.
|Gene Gillette & Adam Langdon|
As Ed, Christopher’s father, Gene Gillette provides a heart-wrenching portrayal of the frustrations and fears, the maddening and not always correct choices, and deep love tinged sometimes by absolute anger that any dad of a special needs boy must experience. With shoulders often drooping and head usually bent slightly downward, Ed is a dad with burdens heavier than most parents must bear, and yet his own voice – one that often echoes the peculiar cadence of his son’s but ay an octave or two lower – rings loud with the desperate need he has to love and be loved by a son who has come to distrust him.
Also hungry for the affection of a son is Judy, the mother not as dead as the dad has led his son to believe. Felicity Jones Latta provides several of the evening’s more touching moments as she struggles to understand, to help, and to connect to a son who wants to be with her but not near enough to receive a hug or a kiss or even a gentle touch on the cheek.
|Adam Langdon & Maria Elena Ramirez|
As Siobhan, Christopher’s paraprofessional mentor and guide at school, Maria Elena Ramirez also serves as the play’s ongoing narrator. Siobhan is the steady, encouraging voice to help both Christopher and us as audience figure out how the world around him operates and how he may be able to work his way through it a way that works for him. Ms. Raminrez’s steady, unperturbed, and yet caring demeanor works well for her Siobhan.
The director’s task of recreating the universe within and surrounding the fifteen-year-old is made easier through an incredible creative team. Bunny Christie’s cube-like set design confines us inside an inner sanctum within Christopher’s world that can be graphed into boxes; divided by lines and circles; written on by chalk; and lit with waves of projected numbers, words, and headlines by the hundreds (through the genius of Finn Ross as video designer). Paule Constable’s lighting design pinpoints and outlines Christopher’s programmed way of moving as well as his sudden outbursts of nonlinear chases. The sound design of Ian Dickinson bombards the entire arena at times with the thunderous beats and poundings within Christopher’s head and works with the lighting design to produce the mental and psychological storms he must sometimes endure just to find this way from A to B.
|Adam Langdon & Ensemble Members|
Finally, the playful imagination of a teen and the start-stop pandemonium of an autistic boy’s always-surprising world of constant changes come to physical bearing through the choreography of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Cast members individually, in small groups, and as a whole become partners with Christopher in creating intricate dance-like encounters -- both real and those in his head – whereby the boy is supported by multiple, coordinated bodies in a sudden lean or leap, an urge to lie flat or to fly, or a need to find his way through a gate, a subway door, or a train hallway.
When staged in both London and New York, Curious Dog was in houses somewhat smaller and more compact than one like the immense Golden Gate Theatre. There is an intimacy missing in San Francisco that made the play in those settings more immediate, accessible, and all encompassing. Perhaps for that reason, in this production the first half in particular seems to move much more arduously than I remember from the original. Even with all the spurts of chaotic activity of mind and body occurring on stage, there are times when I found my mind wandering and wishing the story to move on to the more intriguing and engaging second act.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an enthralling adventure that invites audience members to go along for a wild ride with a boy intent on accomplishing several, unswerving missions: solve a mystery, find his mother, pass a math test. That this particular boy has a mind unique and special often defined by a label others call ‘autistic’ is of little care or consequence to him. In this SHN touring production, what we learn is that he is just a boy with goals, passions, and determination – all keys to a future where he just might succeed.
Rating: 4.5 E
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues through July 23, 2017 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus