Who killed Mrs. Shears’s dog Wellington with a gardening fork? That unseemly question launches The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a moving and theatrically
impeccable Broadway adaption of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel. But it’s the investigation that causes real wonder — or rather the investigator himself, a young man who undergoes an unfathomable journey of self-discovery.
The teenage sleuth, Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp), suffers from an unstated form of high-functioning autism. He excels at advanced math, dreaming of taking his A-level exams. He loves model trains and cares for his pet rat. He’s sweet and stubborn, brave and confused. So when the Swindon police blame him for Wellington’s demise, Christopher takes matters into his own hands. His search for answers uncovers family truths deeper and more bewildering than he ever could have imagined. In order to set things right, our outsider hero must summon all of his abilities to hurdle his fears and limitations.
A gifted newcomer who graduated from Juilliard in May, Sharp delivers a stunning, limber performance as Christopher. The actor takes us with him into a soul struggling with the mind’s limitations; his physically expressive performance — full of wit, intelligence, and pain — is among the most memorable in a long while. He lets us feel Christopher’s psychic terror when under duress and his flushed triumph when he prevails despite all his difference. Refreshingly, though the show hinges on this central role, it’s thoroughly an ensemble effort, with strong contributions by Ian Barford as the boy’s father and Francesca Faridany as his teacher.
Curious Incident originated at London’s National Theatre and has enjoyed a successful West End run. This is the same production, recast with Americans. That lineage might sound familiar, and indeed the show has a lot in common with War Horse, the National’s previous commercial transfer: sleek, sophisticated visuals, masterful central performances, and a carefully controlled emotional arc. (The two shows share a director, Marianne Elliott.) But where the puppets-and-pathos War Horse falls into melodrama, Curious Incident, in Simon Stephens’s adaption, turns the mysteries ontological, probing the surprising unknowns of the detective’s experience of the world.
The staging does this through a jarring combination of timeworn storytelling and sleek, immersive video design. When Christopher makes his way through rail stations, his sensory overload kicks in; the graphics and sound design seize hold of you and don’t let go. Elliott occasionally falls back on old devices — like having Christopher’s teacher point to him while voicing the narrative from his point of view — but the production is so taut, and her manipulation of the narrative so precise, that the means don’t matter in the end. Her commanding direction is admirable — especially in a commercial context — because she’s not afraid to leap into abstraction, trusting the audience to follow when she uses every tool of the stage to steep us in an outsider’s alien viewpoints.
When Christopher finally makes his way through the vertiginous assault of city streets, Elliott choreographs the sequence so that the boy walks sideways along the set’s walls, supported by the ensemble. We can feel in our own bodies every one of the painful and disorienting steps Christopher takes, as he travels further than he knew he could. It’s a testament to this inspired production that our perceptions are the ones that shift.