A ‘Curious’ Choice for a Play

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,' a sensation as a novel and a Broadway and London theatrical production, opens at Cincinnati Playhouse

click to enlarge Nick LaMedica plays Christopher Boone at Cincinnati Playhouse. - Photo: Jerry Naunheim
Photo: Jerry Naunheim
Nick LaMedica plays Christopher Boone at Cincinnati Playhouse.

A mystery opens Thursday at the Cincinnati Playhouse, where tales of Sherlock Holmes have often been well received. This one is quite different, however — although The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time sounds like a case that would have enticed Holmes and Watson. The truth is, this tale has its own fascinating and circuitous path to the Playhouse.

Curious Incident began as a 2003 novel by British author Mark Haddon. Instead of the Victorian sleuth, Haddon’s central character is the 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a Sherlock Holmes fan. He’s brilliant and sweet, a math whiz and a logical thinker living in Swinton, England; he also has daunting personality issues with social interactions and relationships. When Christopher’s neighbor’s dog is murdered (with a garden pitchfork, no less) and he is wrongly accused, he sets out to solve the case, which involves a 250-mile solo trip to London.

Haddon was a well-established children’s writer (16 of his books for young readers had sold well), but his publisher felt that this story might have broader appeal, so it was issued in two forms: as a novel for young adolescents and a traditional work of adult fiction. Both succeeded and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time became a bestseller.

In an April 2004 essay for The Guardian, Haddon wrote, “The book has simple language, a carefully shaped plot and invites you to enter someone else’s life. And these, I think, are the aspects of the book that appeal to young readers.

“But the book, I hope, does something more than that. …It isn’t entirely comfortable. It’s about how little separates us from those we turn away from in the street. It’s about how badly we communicate with one another. It’s about accepting that every life is narrow and that our only escape from this is not to run away…but to learn to love the people we are and the world in which we find ourselves.”

Haddon was frequently approached about making a movie of Christopher’s story. “It seemed impossible to me that such a radically first-person novel set entirely in the head of a single character could be translated into a radically third-person medium without doing irreparable damage,” he wrote in another Guardian essay (April 2013). 

He eventually decided to invite his friend, playwright Simon Stephens, to tackle the task. “I loved his writing and I was fairly confident that his bleak nihilism and fascination with random violence would steer him round the obvious pitfall of sentimentality,” Haddon wrote in the same essay.
Stephens’ adaptation debuted at London’s National Theatre in 2012 and won seven Olivier Awards. The show’s Broadway production in 2014 won five Tony Awards, including best play. Rights recently became available for more productions, and the Playhouse staging is one of nine this season, making it the fourth most frequently mounted show in the U.S.

The London and New York productions, both staged by renowned British director Marianne Elliott, employed spectacular visual effects to represent the inner workings of Christopher’s mind. At the Playhouse, director Marcia Milgrom Dodge follows a different course for Cincinnati audiences. “In our production, the cast and creative team will utilize the techniques of cunning stagecraft and heightened behavior to bring the story to vivid life,” said Dodge for a blog post on the Playhouse’s website. “No high-tech approach for this production, but rather an approach that will allow these seemingly ordinary characters to make their relationships with Christopher meaningful and fulfilling, however complicated and messy.”

On Oct. 30, the Playhouse will present a discussion about autism. While that term is not used in Haddon’s novel or Stephens’ play, it’s clear that Christopher’s disposition is on that spectrum.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs Thursday through Nov. 11 at Cincinnati Playhouse. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com