Touring ‘The Curious Incident’ astounds more than it engages
By Bob Abelman
“On the spectrum.”
This is the term used to describe Christopher Boone, the teenage hero in Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-selling novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
The spectrum represents the range of symptoms and skills Christopher possesses that are associated with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. He has difficulty interacting with others. He is over-sensitive to stimuli, particularly touch. He finds comfort in repetitive behaviors, sees everything but has interest in very little, and possesses a remarkable affinity for mathematics.
And “The Curious Incident” affords us the opportunity to see the world through his unique perspective.
Just as the film “A Beautiful Mind” captured, through clever cinematography, the paranoid delusions associated with John Nash’s genius, “The Curious Incident” relies on high-quality high-tech stagecraft – and 234 sound and 373 light cues – to depict the barrage of stimuli that keeps Christopher in a heightened state of anxiety.
The performance space is surrounded by Bunny Christie’s Tony Award-winning scenic design that entails a huge black mathematical grid that explodes with the animated images that exist in Christopher’s mind – mathematical formulas, city maps, train stations and constellations – as designed by Finn Ross.
An exhilarating electric underscore by Adrian Sutton, intense pulsating lighting design by Paule Costable, amplified ambient sound design by Ian Dickinson, and modern ballet mob-scene movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett work in perfect balance to create an intriguing sense of Christopher’s consciousness.
Playing Christopher in Britain’s National Theatre touring production, which is currently on stage at Playhouse Square, is the magnificent Adam Langdon (who alternates with Benjamin Wheelwright for some performances). Langdon’s portrayal is authentically autistic, artistically risk taking, and always interesting.
And yet, this impressive, immersive theater experience is not particularly engaging. The reason is that this drama is also on the spectrum, exhibiting an excess of storytelling but not much story.
The play revolves around Christopher’s parents, who are estranged due to the pressures associated with looking after their high-maintenance son. In the first act, we and Christopher learn the details of their separation and in the second act we travel with Christopher on his Asperger’s odyssey to London to see his Mom.
Once the sheer novelty and unconventionality of the production values wears off, the thin story beneath it becomes exposed and the show grows tedious.
To cover, the playwright uses the same narrative devices as Haddon’s bestseller but they never quite click on stage.
Christopher’s special-education teacher, Siobhan – a delightful Maria Elena Ramirez – provides Christopher’s inner voice by reading aloud his journal about his family. Because this turns the play and the people in it into an extension of Christopher’s autism, it limits the range and depth with which the parents can be depicted.
The wonderful Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta do what they can to add flesh to their characters, but there’s not much to work with. The talented ensemble, who are afforded moments as assorted neighbors and passersby, are similarly handcuffed.
Later in the play, Siobhan convinces Christopher to turn his journal into a play, which then gets enacted in this production and gives way to some meta-theatrical references that come across as cloying.
Director Marianne Elliott finds the humor and tenderness in this work, as she did when creating the first production of “War Horse” for the National Theatre.
But the heightened engagement she was able to generate from that production and from the London and Broadway productions of “The Curious Incident” get a bit lost amidst the bells and whistles of this touring production. cv
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through April 9
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 23, 2017.
Lead image: Adam Langdon as Christopher. Photo / Joan Marcus