When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Simon Stephens opened on London in 2012, it quickly became a hit. The play was based on a best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, which was published 2003. It too had been a hit. The show was already a hit when it opened in New York in 2014, and was essentially sold out before it opened.
Why was that? The show had certainly captured interest in surprising ways. Was it because of the story, which involved a teenaged boy whose behavior pretty obviously indicated he was somewhere on the autism spectrum, and that was a new subject for theater? Was it because it was a tricky mystery that featured the adventure of the teen trying to track down who killed a neighbor's dog? (We can pretty much rule that out because the killer is determined by the end of the first act.) Was it because the direction by Marianne Elliot of War Horse fame who, with her designers, wowed audiences with a dazzling experience created using lighting and sound?
Whatever has given the show its cachet, it is being produced here by the Rogue Theatre, so we have a chance to discover or ponder these and other questions. Directed by Cynthia Meier, with help by an able and familiar Rogue cast, it's an intriguing production that does well on many counts, and stumbles with others.
Christopher Boone (Hunter Hnat) is a 15-year-old boy with "behavioral problems," living with his father in a small town outside London. His bearing and speech indicate he is most likely autistic, although the playwright declines to state that outright. At the opening of the story, he discovers a neighbor's dog dead in the yard, having been run though with a pitchfork. When attention turns to the possibility that he was the killer, he denies it vigorously, and vows that he will find the murderer. It's a puzzle and Christopher is very good at puzzles, as well as complicated math issues. It is obvious that he is very bright. It is also obvious that he does not relate normally to people, or what most of us might consider normal.
Christopher attempts in his awkward but not really offensive way to find who killed the dog. The path along which this mystery unfolds unexpectedly reveals yet another mystery. His father has told Christopher that his mother died of heart problems. While searching for clues to the curious incident with the dog, he finds a box in his father's closet in which are stashed numerous letters written to him by his mother from an address in London. Why did his father lie to him? Why did he hide her letters? Why didn't he want Christopher to have a relationship with his mother?
Thus begins Christopher's hero's journey. He is in many ways ill-prepared for it, particularly because it means he wants to travel by train to London. The idea of the trip, traveling alone, trying to negotiate train stations and fellow travelers as well as trying to find his way to his mother's address in London via the subway might strain any inexperienced young traveler. How difficult it is for Christopher makes his success in finding her even more heroic, especially as all this also requires him to negotiate the fallout of parental betrayal. Dealing with ordinary things are overwhelming for him in the first place. Now his circumstances are even more overwhelming.
The book is Christopher's experience told in the first person. The experience we get when reading is filtered through him alone. In translation to a play, changes are needed. The story must be told with the assistance of actors playing his mother and father, his teacher, neighbors. Scenes happen abruptly between real people, locales need to be suggested—storytelling becomes quite a bit more complicated. The book can captivate by Christopher's voice alone. When moved to the theater, the storytelling context changes. And this makes a huge difference.
The thing that the book does, and the productions in London and New York seemed to excel at, is create a representation of what it might be like to to live in Christopher's mind. The novel delivers this; the words are Christopher's. The script gets at this, but the success of the play has a lot to do with finding a style that best delivers Christopher's story. That involves some unusual challenges, some of which are met in the Rogue's production, but not all. In fact, the production reveals some of the weaknesses of the script.
The story itself is rather overwrought. There's the suburban adulterous relationships in which Christopher's father and mother both engage, involving next-door neighbors and leading to dead dogs and hidden letters and Christopher's crisis. The unravelling and and denouement of all this is pretty facile, even sentimental. (Yes, there is even a puppy involved.)
The high-tech nature of the original show's lighting and sound design provided an almost literal way to see what Christopher sees, to get inside his mind. For the Rogue, director Cynthia Meier has decided to go low-tech. The theater offers a bag full of tricks to help create and tell stories, and sometimes less is indeed more. Here the set is minimal. Actors sit on crates which can be used as different objects, and they play different characters. There is no sound except that provided by the actors. But does it result in allowing us to see as Christopher sees? It is inventive and creative, but is it as effective as the technical wizardry that was featured in those high tech productions? Sometimes more is actually more. In fact, sometimes here this low-tech approach just feels clunky. Distracting, even.
Still, the production is an interesting one, and because Hnat's Christopher is well-crafted and earns our attention, this Curious Incident is one many will find genuinely captivating.