October 18, 2014

"The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night- Time" Dazzles with Game-Changing Stagecraft

Although she grew up in a theatrical family (dad was a director and founder of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, mom’s an actor) the British director Marianne Elliott reportedly hated theater as a kid. And perhaps that’s why she’s able to be so daring about upending the way shows get made.

Elliott’s production of War Horse, which used life-sized puppets to tell the tale of a boy and his beloved horse trying to survive amid the horrors of World War I, became a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and won Elliott a Tony in 2011. Now, she’s back on Broadway with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its stagecraft is even more dazzling than its predecessor’s (click here to read more about the director). 

The story is based on Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel about an autistic teen named Christopher Boone who attempts to solve the mysterious murder of a neighbor’s dog. In the process, Christopher, who is mathematically gifted but emotionally stunted, learns some hard-won truths about his parents and about his own ability to navigate the world that had previously baffled him. 

The boy's hero is Sherlock Holmes and the play takes its title from a short story about that idiosyncratic master of deduction. When I read the book 10 years ago, I found its deadpan first-person narrative, sly literary allusions and erudite mathematical references to be amusing, touching and impossible to imagine as a movie or a play. But playwright Simon Stephens has stepped up to the challenge. 

Stephens has reframed the storytelling: the first act is presented as an essay that Christopher has written for school and that his teacher reads out loud, creating a running narration for the action onstage; the even more meta second act becomes a play that she has adapted from his story (clear here to listen to an interview on the adaptation process).  

Then Stephens and the folks at London’s National Theatre, where the play originated before its move to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, had the good sense to enlist Elliott to direct the production. It's her inventive stagecraft that truly transforms the book. 

Elliott says she likes to collaborate and she and her equally resourceful design team are totally in sync. The Curious Incident unfolds on a stage shaped like a cube, which designer Bunny Christie has wallpapered in graph paper to simulate the hyper-orderliness of Christopher’s mind. 

Meanwhile, the kinetic lighting by Paule Constable and clever video projections by Finn Ross hook up with Adrian Sutton’s pulsating music and Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham’s distinctive choreography to mimic the thoughts, feelings and sensory overload the teen experiences as he unravels both the large and small mysteries of his life. A scene in London’s busy Paddington Station is stunning (click here to read about the design). 

A large supporting cast of 13 actors slip nimbly into and out of multiple roles, including some non-human. The father, played with bluff honesty by Ian Barford, is particularly winning. 
But anchoring the whole production (at least at the performance I saw, since another actor plays the matinees) is the performance of Alex Sharp, a 25-year-old who just graduated from NYU Juilliard in May and is now making his professional debut in the role of Christopher.  

Actors often draw accolades for portraying disabled people but Christopher is particularly tricky to pull off because he has such unappealing quirks (a visceral dread of being touched, a near monotone style of speaking) and he is aware of the often alienating effect that he can have on others and yet proud of his singularity. 

Sharp nails all of it, revealing the emotional inner life of a boy, who on the surface seems to have none. And he does this while giving an exhaustingly physical performance that has him at moments literally climbing the walls (click here for a Q& A with the young actor).

It's a career-making performance in a game-changing show.

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