‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

Adam Langdon as Christopher Boone & the cast of the touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Like all great murder mysteries, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time starts with a body.

A dog lies center stage, small pitchfork protruding from its furry flank. The dog is Wellington—or was, before someone killed him—and he was neighbor to Christopher Boone, aged 15 years, three months and two days. Christopher did not kill Wellington. He tells the police officer who arrives to investigate as much, but things sour when the office touches Christopher. Christopher does not like to be touched.

Unlike most murder mysteries, in which the fun comes from sorting out clues and suspects, the whodunit is practically beside the point. The real story is our investigator. “I find people confusing,” says Christopher, a math genius and space aficionado. Favorite colors: red and metal color. His autism makes people hard to read and his logic entirely literal, which confuses adults reliant on body language and metaphor, euphemism and white lies.

Curious Incident, adapted from Mark Haddon’s crazy-popular 2003 novel by Simon Stephens, opened at London’s National Theatre in 2012, moved to the West End and picked up seven Olivier Awards. The play then opened on Broadway in 2014 and won five Tonys, including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play for Marianne Elliott, who also helms this national tour now playing at the Paramount Theatre.

As Christopher, Adam Langdon brings a direct, almost childlike physicality to his performance—straight lines and decisive directional changes when he’s certain, wide-eyed shuffling when he’s not. He also layers Christopher’s flattened emotional affect with a childish quality, which occasionally undercuts the laugh-out-loud humor in his literal interpretations of words and oversimplifies an otherwise stellar, nuanced performance. In his most grounded moments, such as when he asks his mother, “Is killing Wellington a little crime?” his disappointment in our world is gutting. Because his is a brilliant, ordered mind—and he’s right.  

Gene Gillette stars as his father, Ed, stiff-shoulder and mush-mouthed, and Felicity Jones Latta as his mother Judy, flighty and overwhelmed. But it’s Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan, Christopher’s school therapist, who is the calm center around which this story whirls. Dressed all in white, the appearance of lively, languid Siobhan feels like a long-held exhale, as she must for Christopher. It’s Siobhan who lets Christopher be, who confirms or explains his questions about people and their baffling behavior. A raised eyebrow, he points out, “can mean I want to do sex with you,’ but it can also mean, ‘I think that what you just said was very stupid.’” It’s Siobhan who convinces Christopher that he should turn his story into a book, and thus, in this stage adaptation, into a play.  

Like the inside of Christopher’s head, the physical world of Curious Incident is playful but intensely logical, cavernous and black, dotted with a grid of LEDs. The sensory overload is by design; flashing lights and pounding noise set your heart racing, a raw, unhinged feeling that batters you like a storm and echoes Christopher’s response to too much information. At the same time, the flexible, imaginative design can vault us from place to place in a heartbeat, from classroom to outer space, from Swindon, where Christopher lives, to London, where his investigation takes him. The ingenious scenic, lighting and video design (Bunny Christie, Paule Constable and Finn Ross, respectively) melds into a canvas for ecstatic ensemble movement choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly—Christopher in slow-motion while everyone around is on fast-forward; Christopher launched, weightless, into the stratosphere of his imagination, free from the heaviness of earth. (Hoggett is the physical poet behind Broadway shows like Once and Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as many of National Theatre of Scotland’s recent hits—if you have a chance to see his work, take it).

This high-tech design and high-impact stagecraft set off Christopher’s stark understanding of human interaction. Having set up an expectation of rapid plot development in the first act, as mysteries compound and Christopher sets off on uncertain adventures, the play’s second act dips in rhythm, a jarring turn that requires some recalibration for both Christopher and his audience. (The references to this whole event being a play written by Christopher are spare and sly, and judiciously used.) With his logical puzzles solved, Christopher is thrust back into the complex machinations of his emotional world and it feels unfair, encroaching on Christopher’s ordered self in a way he doesn’t deserve. That’s the final piece of rhetorical brilliance this play holds—Christopher feels the friction between himself and the world more keenly than most, but that disruption happens to everyone. As good as we are at controlling ourselves, the messy world can always fuck it up with its relentless flood of love, grief, despair, laughter. But while some may see other people as hell, what they really are for all of us is life. 

Curious Incident runs through July 30.