Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was in part a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, although the hero in the 2003 mystery novel is an autistic British teenager, not the distinguished private detective of Edwardian England. However, Christopher Boone, age 15, is every bit as proficient at deductive reasoning as his predecessor. The novel, narrated by Christopher — a boy with Asperger’s-like issues (a form of high-functioning autism) who cannot bear to be touched — was a prizewinner a decade ago. It didn’t seem a likely candidate for the stage, but playwright Simon Stephens reframed the first-person narrative into a play-within-a-play that became a London hit in 2012 (it won seven Olivier Awards). A Broadway production of it won the 2015 Tony Award as the season’s best play.
Christopher is a near-genius who doesn’t play well with others, but he connects with animals. So when a neighbor’s dog is brutally murdered, he sets out to solve the mystery despite being warned to stay out of it by his overwhelmed single father, Ed (Richard Hollis). We are led to believe that Christopher’s mother is dead, but that’s not a reliable piece of evidence; Enid Graham plays the role of the perplexed parent who could not cope with her son’s disability.
I saw the production on Nov. 15 with Tyler Lea playing Christopher. He has taken over the role on Broadway from Alex Sharp, who won a Tony Award for his performance when the show opened. It’s a daunting acting challenge, but Lea is no one-off replacement: He’s as convincing in the role as anyone in the audience could hope for. Christopher is the center of an onstage universe depicted as a black cube — walls, floor and ceiling glowing with an illuminated grid of horizontal and vertical lines, a visual representation of Christopher’s strangely disciplined mind. Actors playing various roles in his story sit around the perimeter, and elements of his adventure pop out of drawers in the walls and pieces of flooring that flip open.
Christopher is fascinated with outer space and at one point he’s carried around the stage by other actors as if he’s drifting weightlessly; at another moment, lost on a journey to London from his home town, he climbs the rear wall then walks down “steps” that are cubes momentarily protruding and retracting. It’s both disorienting and fascinating, one of the many ways we are forced to consider the interior of his unique mind while he pieces together the “incident” — an investigation that is truly a portal into Christopher’s strangely fragmented path toward adulthood.
I imagine that this play will be presented by numerous regional theaters when it becomes available. While the complex design of the London and Broadway productions has been an integral element of Curious Incident’s appeal, I suspect creative directors will find ways to stage the show with fewer bells and whistles. The fundamental story of Christopher’s journey of self-exploration is one that anyone can identify with and learn from. As he learns, so do we.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is now onstage at Barrymore Theatre in New York. More info: CuriousOnBroadway.com