by Cory Conley · October 13, 2014
Ian Barford, Alex Sharp |Joan Marcus
It's hard to imagine a theatrical experience that would be more difficult to describe in words than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
That's a bit funny, actually, because Curious Incident is based on a novel by Mark Haddon, which was written entirely from the point of view of its main character Christopher, a very bright teenage boy who has autism. And, as he himself points out on more than one occasion, Christopher notices everything. So in fact, there are many words to describe the events that occur on stage, just after the boy discovers a murdered dog late at night near his house, with few clues and a slew of suspects. It's all in the book.
But the theater, of course, is another form entirely, and director Marianne Elliott's immersive staging pulses with so much electricity (both literal and figurative) that it sometimes feels more like a theme park ride than a play. That's not a knock against it, by any means; in fact, it's the perfect representation of the inside of Christopher's boundless, dizzying mind. There are grids, and circles, and maps, and colors everywhere, consuming the stage. Sadly for Christopher, there are also people, and they're by far the most deadly and frustrating objects of all.
I won't say much about the plot, since the whole thing is built around mystery. (The book has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens.) But the narrative's neatest trick emerges as you discover that the play's twists are not so twisty, or even all that surprising: it's a rather ordinary drama about Christopher's mom and dad, and the domestic tensions that often emerge around families dealing with Christopher's condition. The trouble for our hero (and, therefore, for us) is that it's all built around complex grown-up emotions, like angst and ambivalence, that Christopher simply can't access or even attempt to understand. We're often a step or two ahead of him in figuring out what's going on, but that has its limits. Comprehension is one thing, but seeing is quite another. And Christopher sees better than anybody.
He is played by the newcomer Alex Sharp, who gives an unforgettably fierce and shimmering performance of the type that makes a genuine Broadway star overnight. Relentlessly agile and ruthlessly bent on solving the case, Sharp's Christopher has so much energy that sometimes he even feels the need to walk on the walls. (You'll see what I mean.) He's helped along by a sterling ensemble, whose work comes together seamlessly in the second-act montage through the London Underground, with expert choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.
But the real star of the show is the technology. The set by Bunny Christie, lights by Paul Constable, and projections by Finn Ross create an effect perhaps never before seen on a New York stage, and certainly not with such success. It starts as a simple grid, and stays that way for much of the first act, expanding slowly as Christopher's world opens up.
Most impressively of all, it's never distracting, because it serves so vividly as the internal map of a vibrant and chaotic mind. If you're going to spend millions on machinery, you might as well make it meaningful, and Curious Incident does it just right.