Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The only aspect of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about which I am curious is what the appeal of this show is to so many people. Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel and transported from London, where it won seven Olivier Awards and continues to do brisk business, the current Broadway production opened over the weekend to rapturous reviews. (Example: Marilyn Stasio of Variety implores us to “believe the buzz” and describes it as “spectacular, like Cirque du Soleil for the brain.” Okay.) The box office numbers are through the roof, and major award nominations are a foregone conclusion. Then why did virtually every aspect of this endeavor leave me so cold?

The play’s titular incident (which has always seemed too clever by half to me) sets the drama in motion. Christopher John Francis Boone (Alex Sharp at evening performances, Taylor Trensch at matinees—I saw Trensch) is a fifteen year old genius who may or may not be on the autism spectrum. He is accused of killing his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, which he categorically denies. It becomes his life’s quest to identify the canine’s true killer, which is complicated by his sensory issues (he is frightened of strangers, dislikes being touched, and doesn’t appear to have much of a language filter). As he pursues his detective work, he learns more than he ever imagined, particularly with regard to his late mother (played by the always terrific Enid Graham).

The production has been described by many as visually stunning—seizure-inducing would be more apt. There are many strobe lights and loud noises, and it sometimes felt not unlike being trapped in a laser tag arena. One true coup-de-theatre involves Graham, as Christopher’s mother, being lifted on the shoulders of the ensemble to simulate riding an ocean wave, as she reads a letter she wrote to Christopher recounting the thrill of such an experience. It’s probably the least technical aspect of the production, yet it’s easily the most affecting and memorable.

As mentioned, the role of Christopher is shared. While I cannot compare Taylor Trensch’s performance to Alex Sharp’s, I came away feeling like I had seen the quintessential understudy performance. While completely competent, Trensch lacks that certain star quality you expect from a leading actor. (Despite the large amount of stage time, I remain generally unsure as to why this role requires an alternate, let alone one who performs three times a week).

In addition to the aforementioned Graham, the ensemble includes English actress Francesca Faridany as Christopher’s teacher (and the play’s de-facto narrator); Steppenwolf veteran Ian Barford as Christopher’s father, a gruff but caring man; and the estimable Helen Carey as a well-meaning neighbor. All do fine work, yet they cannot overcome the emptiness of their characters.

Curious Incident is directed by Marianne Elliott, who won a Tony for War Horse, another spectacle-driven yet ultimately hollow play. She may have an eye for stage pictures, but she’s yet to convince me that she understands people.

[Rear mezzanine seats, $59]

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