Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Have you ever seen Change of Habit (1969), the last movie Elvis Presley had a starring role in? Presley plays a doctor who works at a clinic. . . "In the Ghetto". Mary Tyler Moore co-stars as an undercover nun (seriously) who assists him in the clinic and, soon enough, agonizes over whether she should throw Jesus over for him. It's as horribly, brilliantly, gloriously awful as it sounds, and if you haven't seen it, you should, especially if you are drunk, high or (ideally) both. A subplot involves a young, autistic patient at the clinic. "She's hiding behind a wall of anger," Elvis knowingly tells Mary when they first examine her. Elvis and Mary eventually load up on coffee--and gumption!--and let the patient rage and scream and flail and cry for, like, a full day without a break. Lo and behold, at the end of the day, she's exhausted, but magically cured of autism, and Elvis and Mary happily go back to making moony eyes at one another while attending to other slum-dwellers.

Change of Habit popped into my head at some point during The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, not because the latter is even remotely awful, but because I wondered if, someday, The Curious Incident would seem as quaintly ridiculous and outdated as Habit is when it comes to its depiction of neurodevelopmental disability. I certainly hope so, not only because medical advances are a good thing, but also because I have a son on the autism spectrum, and I admit feeling frequently frustrated by how little anyone really knows about the disorder. During positive moments, though, I like to remind myself that, at the very least, we've left Elvis in the dark ages. As far as autism goes, we no longer resort to dumb, simplistic assessments involving real or metaphorical walls of anger. As we work toward answers, simplistic black-and-white dichotomies have given way to a lot more gray. There's something comforting in the gray. It's what we have right now. That's something.

I thus found the gray areas that Curious Incident explores to be the most interesting, resonant aspects of the show. Don't get me wrong: the production deserves all the accolades it's been getting for its stunning special effects and magically adaptable set. If any show, ever, warranted curtain calls for its props, lighting, and sound departments, this is the one. Technically speaking, Curious Incident is a masterpiece. But as the late '80s and early '90s taught us, spectacle alone does not brilliant theater make. And thus, it was a relief to discover that Curious Incident delivered in ways I didn't expect it to.

I say "relief" because, frankly, I found the book--which I read before I had children--to be engaging and diverting, but hardly terribly deep or convincing. The protagonist, Christopher Boone, describes himself as having trouble socially, but in both the book and the play, no official diagnosis is ever mentioned. Christopher seems, in many ways, to have Asperger syndrome, but the book's author, Mark Haddon, has made it clear that he is not a spokesperson for autism disorders, and did little to no research about Asperger's before creating the character. Haddon's interest was more in creating a boy struggling with extreme social difference than one saddled with any specific label.

This is just as well, because while Christopher certainly exhibits many traits that would place him squarely on the spectrum, others don't ring quite true. As a result, Curious Incident struck me as somewhat contrived, and a little too melodramatic in its attempts to sustain the trajectory of the plot.

Seeing the play brought back the issues I had with the book. While more visually and sonically spectacular than the first act, the second slops into contrivances and melodrama. And despite a gently understated (and, for me, surprisingly moving) final scene between Christopher and his teacher Siobhan (who serves in both book and play as his link to the socio/emotional world that eludes him), the play ends a bit too tidily after all the chaos that has been so repeatedly implied.  
What the play has done exceptionally well, however, is to translate, with what seems like enormous care, the relationships established between Christopher and the people with whom he comes into contact. For all of his difference, Christopher is ultimately no better, worse, or more flawed than any other character in the piece. Sure, he can be endearing and irritating, infuriating and lovable--sometimes all at once. But, the show implies, the same goes everyone else on the stage: Christopher's patient, doting father clearly loves him, advocates fiercely for him, longs to connect with him in any way he can. Yet he is also raw with exhaustion and anger, drinks too much, has a violent and impulsive streak, and makes a series of very bad decisions. Christopher's mom, who has run off with a neighbor after deciding that caring for a disabled son was just too difficult, could easily have been villainized, but she isn't: she, like her ex-husband and son, is a good person with deep flaws, which this production is too smart to exploit.

The same goes for the secondary characters, even those who show up for a scene or a few lines of dialogue. All of the people Christopher comes into contact with react to him in ways that struck me as absolutely true, at least in my experiences. Encountering disability can, and does, breed some seriously maddening, incredibly weird social behavior. While many people are perfectly comfortable around disabled people, many can be ignorant and bluntly unkind. Many more occupy a strange middleground of well-meaning discomfort: forced cheer, averted eyes, flushed faces, stammered responses. Throughout Curious Incident, Christopher speaks with various people who react in perfectly recognizable ways: they run the gamut from overtly condescending, to forced, to perfectly comfortable. None of them--well, ok, maybe one or two--are cardboard villains. A few who begin interactions with eye-rolling impatience quickly adjust and become allies; a few who initially seem kindest and most accommodating overstep in due time.

For all the technical dazzlements of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, then, it's the way human contact is depicted that truly impressed me. The show neatly pointed out that, diagnosis or not, we are, all of us, pretty weird, and that the differences between "typical" and "abnormal" are pretty blurry in the end. Maybe I found this to be the most rewarding part of the show because the moving, frustrating, human ways that people react to difference reminded me most of my own life and my own experiences with my own son. Maybe it's just because the points of human contact served to gently contrast the lights, sounds, and set innovations for which the show has been so broadly praised. Either way, the lights and set, so crisp and clean, had nothing for me on the moments when the characters touched, conversed, strove to understand one another, supported one another, worked to find connections in the shadows when the sharp, clean whites and striking, inky blacks faded into the reality of dull, murky grays.  

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