“Don’t you ever think about other people for one second?” a character demands of Christopher Boone, the 15-year-old protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The line, which comes late in the play, would be funny if it weren’t so tragically dense.
Christopher, inside whose world we are thrust in Simon Stephens’ extraordinary play, is autistic. He is unable to have normal social interactions or to handle stimuli from the outside that upset his familiar, carefully ordered reality. He avoids eye contact. A mere touch sends him into hysterics. He takes words literally and cannot process new and complicated information — unless it relates to numbers, at which he is something of a genius. The diagnosis today would be Asperger’s disorder, though neither that term nor the word autism is ever spoken in the play.
One of the achievements of this stage adaptation of the best-selling 2003 novel by Mark Haddon is that it is a play about a disabled teenager that totally avoids medical explanations or conventional, courage-in-the-face-of-illness sentimentality. The play, which has just opened on Broadway after acclaimed runs at London’s National Theatre and on the West End, is part mystery story, part family drama, part young-adult adventure tale. But mostly it’s a demonstration of the power of theater to transport us to exotic places, none more exotic than the inside workings of a discombobulated human mind.
Like such previous British stage triumphs as War Horse and Matilda: The Musical, the play seems to have been imagined in entirely fresh, wonderfully utilitarian theatrical terms. The set is a black box of crosshatched graph paper — the grid of Christopher’s rigid but wildly disconnected mind, director Marianne Elliott (who was also the mastermind behind War Horse) orchestrates a dazzling array of sound and light effects, video projections and choreographed movement by a group of actors who remain onstage at all times — alternately handling props, helping animate scenes by impersonating kitchen appliances and other household objects, and playing all the people in Christopher’s life.
The plot is minimal. The dog of the title appears in the play’s first startling, flashbulb-lit image — dead on a neighbor’s lawn, gruesomely impaled by a pitchfork. Christopher, though first suspected of the crime, sets out to solve it, in his obsessive, rigidly logical manner. In the process he discovers deeper secrets about his family — the gruff but caring father (Ian Barford) with whom he lives and a mother (Enid Graham) from whom he has been parted for years.
In lieu of the novel’s first-person narrative, the play tells much of the story through Christopher’s own writing — a story he has presumably written, read aloud in snatches by his teacher (Francesca Faridany). But his point of view is most vividly conveyed by the inventive, subjective staging. Christopher’s trip to London, alone for the first time in a bewildering environment, is a particularly harrowing sensory assault — a cacophony of signs, voices, heedless crowds, hurtling subway trains, an escalator that appears out of thin air. But it’s more than just a sound-and-light show: a pantomimed sequence in which Christopher tries to negotiate a commuter-train bathroom is a tiny masterpiece of wordless, detailed theater verité.
Alex Sharp, a recent Juilliard graduate who is making his Broadway debut, is stunningly good as Christopher. He does wonders with his eyes — squinting as if shying away from the light one minute, wide-eyed with wonder the next, never really focusing but always sharpening our focus on his disoriented mind. Every single cast member — all Americans, though you wouldn’t guess it — forms an indispensable piece of the seamless whole. The Curious Incident is a real Broadway curiosity, a play that works on every level — crowd-pleasing, eye-opening, life-affirming and unmissable.