The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by John Stoltenberg

Now and then there comes a production of a play that is so spectacularly original it confounds one’s every expectation of what can be achieved in theater. The story—a marvel in itself—could not be told more mind-blowingly. There’s no way the play could work as well any other way.

That’s what I remember thinking about a year ago when I left New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater having first experienced The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This profound and penetrating play—based on a novel written in the voice of a brainiac 15-year-old boy named Christopher—had been realized so perfectly that every rave I had read about its dazzling production was bested by what I saw and heard for myself.

So naturally I was eager to find out whether the show on tour would be as good. Its breakthrough wonders of stagecraft could not be easy to truck about. That dizzyingly animated set, that blazing light plot, that sonic boom-box sound track—all so central to the sensory and cerebral stimulation of the show—they’d have to replicate all that tech-citement on the road, right?

Well, that’s what they did alright, and the whole gosh-wow shebang can now be experienced in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center.

Purists might note a few inconsequential road-show accommodations: There’s no staircase that on Broadway protruded astonishingly from the upstage wall so that Christopher could bound up it; the stage floor doesn’t suddenly gape open so that Christopher can leap onto train tracks. But for all practical perceptual purposes, The Curious Incident is as thrillingly hallucinatory as before.

And then, on top of the theatrical extravaganza, there’s the extraordinary emotional inner life of the drama itself. Its main character, Christopher, cannot bear to be touched. Apparently on the autism spectrum, Christopher inhabits not his body so much as his very literal-minded intelligence, which is capable of prodigious mathematical calculations but incapable of inferring meaning from commonplace metaphors and idioms.  And right off the bat (to use an expression that would confuse Christopher), the play has done something without any precedent in theater that I can recall: In taking as its point of view the intellectually hyper-engaged but emotionally alienated Christopher, The Curious Incident introduces us to a wholly original cognitive and emotional relationship to a character and story line.

The “curious incident” that incites the plot is a dead dog, a pitchfork stuck into it, that lies centerstage before the play begins. The dog belonged to a neighbor of Christopher’s, and he sets out, Sherlock Holmes–like, to find the killer. His path of detective work leads him to learn not only that but much more, especially about his mother and father and how his family has been torn apart in ways that he had no clue. It’s a drama of discovery that would deeply distress any 15-year-old, but because the story is told through the naive/wise eyes of a child whose mental default is logical analysis, we get to witness the powerful narrative without incessant sentimentality yet with epic ethical clarity.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an unparalleled coup de théâtre. Don’t even think about missing it.

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