The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through Sept 10
Los Angeles is fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy this lavish, technically splendid production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which is making its local stop at the Ahmanson this month. A hit when it premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2012, it opened on Broadway in 2014, winning a host of awards including the Tony Award for Best Play.
Based on the young adult novel by Mark Haddon, Simon Stephens’ play accomplishes a great deal with deceptive simplicity. Told from the point of view of Christopher, a young special needs English boy who may be autistic (it isn’t really defined in the play), Haddon’s novel is both a mystery and a tale spun by a narrator who might or might not actually be seeing what he thinks he’s seeing. One can only imagine how daunting a challenge it was to transfer the book’s idiosyncratic tonal quality to the stage.
Playwright/adaptor Stephens crafts this adaptation with cleverness and heart, with director Marianne Elliott’s dynamic staging adroitly pairing the warmth of the narrative with high tech, atmospheric elements that place us firmly in the central character’s challenging world view.
The play opens with young Christopher (a remarkably appealing Adam Langdon) discovering the corpse of a neighborhood dog, which has been run through with a pitchfork. Over the strong objections of his long-suffering dad (Gene Gillette), Christopher commences playing “detective,” to learn who killed the dog. He’s hampered (and sometimes aided) by an inability to be touched and an entirely literal interpretation of the world around him. In short, he’s like a more realistic Amelia Bedelia, except he doesn’t make the mistake of “dressing” the turkey for dinner.
The clues he follows inevitably lead him to the culprit, and also to some startling revelations about his long-lost mother (Felicity Jones Latta). Based on these investigations, Christopher forces himself to take a trip to London, braving an outside world that appears like nothing so much as pure chaos to his linear perception.
Elliott’s crisp production is anchored by Langdon’s agile turn as Christopher. Langdon depicts both his character’s vulnerability and fragility, belying Christopher’s emotional simplicity with acrobatic movement and the ability to transition from joy to terror in a split second.
The terrors Christopher confronts are compellingly presented by the rotating, kaleidoscopic images that strobe onto the walls and floor, and by the unpredictably intricate choreography that has ensemble members lurching around the protagonist in shockingly chaotic ways. The play shoots forward like a powerful, mechanical juggernaut full of quick-paced incident and image, with Langdon’s gentle, confused Christopher as the central eye of the storm.
The mystery elements unfold like layers of an onion: The subplot involving the dog is solved before intermission, but the work subsequently evolves into the compelling tale of Christopher’s gradual uncovering of self-truth. As it turns into this very different story, The Curious Incident gains in emotional impact and nuance — Christopher becomes a lost soul, whose precious innocence is a gift in a world where darkness gathers and moves towards the center.
Strong support is offered by Gillette’s gruff and at times short tempered dad, and by Latta’s emotionally nuanced, emotionally complex turn as Christopher’s mother. Finn Ross’s dynamic, hyper-active video montages — along with Ian Dickinson’s cleverly piercing sound design — are almost compelling characters in themselves.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand, Los Angeles; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Sept 10. (213) 972-4400, or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.