By Tristan Lejeune
In 2003, years before some of us had ever heard phrases such as “Asperger syndrome” or “on the spectrum,” British writer Mark Haddon told the story of Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who hates being touched, loves the color red and knows the names of “all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057.” Though he goes to a school for children with special challenges, Christopher’s exact condition is never nailed down, but it both follows him and drives him — now a shadow, now an engine — as he goes on a detective quest to discover who murdered a neighbor’s dog with a gardening fork, and why.
If Haddon’s award-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a POV deep-dive into Christopher’s brilliant, troubled mind, the play of the same name is an inside-out explosion of his perspective. Bunny Christie’s mod-techno set is an X, Y, and Z grid of diagrams, strobe and LED displays, and glowing white boxes used as furniture or perhaps full of toys, like Daft Punk gone to playschool. The full-power auditory/visual flush (overwhelming more than it needs to be) is front and center among this show’s tools for climbing inside Christopher’s journey, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliot. Paule Constable’s lighting design, Finn Ross’s video design and sound from Ian Dickinson are bulls that delight in dashing from china shop to china shop. Make no mistake: this is a bright, loud, at-times enveloping play, theatre of the subjective at its most slap-you-in-the-face.
Theatregoers would not be wrong to wish, however, for more of a stiff upper lip from this U.K. import. In the book, Haddon’s first-person narrative is veddy English-style dry — Christopher is not one for embellishment, to say the least — and while it’s fine to leave that behind, Stephen’s script, Adam Langdon’s lead performance and worst of all Adrian Sutton’s musical score are so treacly sentimental instead, it’s like trading Prime Suspect for Downton Abbey. The ammonia-snort sensory overload is OK, as far as it goes, but a soft underbelly means it can’t go too far.
At least the play doesn’t take itself too seriously. Far from it: In the second act, a sly element of self-awareness offers moments of much-needed comic relief as Christopher story begins staging itself. The entire ensemble is game for physical fun, and timing and mood are top notch, but there’s nothing bad music can’t ruin. A particular tip of the hat to Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta, whose performances as two of the must put-upon parents in suburban England are highlights even on a crowded stage. He is hunched over his pain, she lashes out like a whip. It must be tough for any young actor to play a role that is rooted in a failure to connect, but Langdon’s struggles go slightly beyond that. His enthusiasm rings false.
As we sat down, bae said, “The set looks like ‘Portal.'” I replied, “The cake is a lie.” We were both right. Technically impressive and full of wit, Curious Incident can take you by surprise. But beware the sweet side: that gooey soundtrack could poison an ocean.