It’s not very often I get to walk into a popular show knowing nothing about it, so it was a fun experience having that for A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I haven’t yet read the book by Mark Haddon, but I’ve heard nothing but praise for the stage adaption by Simon Stephens. The play follows the story of Christopher, a young boy on the autism spectrum, whose neighbor’s dog has been killed. He is blamed for the crime and, curious about who the real murderer is, he decides to start an investigation and write a book about it. At its heart, the play is a mystery. But it is so much more than that. It is full of family drama, adventure, and a innovative looking to a person’s mind that shows just how powerful and unique the world of theater is.
With a fantastic cast, Adam Langdon is wonderful as Christopher, as are Gene Gillette as Ed (Christopher’s father), Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan (Christopher’s mentor), and Felicity Jones Latta as Judy (Christopher’s mother). Most striking of all is the computer-like set, designed by Bunny Christie, full of grids and chalk-like surfaces with lights that illuminate throughout the performance.
Going in with the bit I did know about the show, I was really interested in how it conveyed those who are neuordivergent – after all, I have several friends on the autism spectrum and I’m interested in representation. It hit me during intermission that a person with autism may not be able to sit through the show – it was disconcerting, overwhelming, very loud, and very bright. And that’s the point. Theater techniques are used to make the audience experience what Christopher is experiencing, what it’s like to live life differently and how some things – walking down city streets, taking subways – that those of use who are neurotypical assume everyone experiences the same can actually be vastly different experiences.
However, I’m not without critique. But it doesn’t land where you might expect. I spend a great deal of my time watching the audience as much as I watch the show. And I was concerned with the number of times I felt the audience laughing at Christopher instead of understanding. Because the word “autistic” was never used, I wondered how many watching the show understood Christopher’s actions. On one hand, I like that the word wasn’t used – it can create certain immediate judgements. But at the same time, we don’t talk about autism well. We’re still debating those who think it can be “cured” or is caused by vaccines. It is a different way of living and this play shows us that. I’m curious why Stephens never labeled Christopher in the script. Maybe he felt it wasn’t his place to do so. So instead of diagnosing, he created an experience in which the audience was put in a place where they had to accept that their view of the world was not what was being shown. I find seeing a character like Christopher being portrayed both compelling and comforting. I’m neurodivergent myself, having anxiety (note: for those of you unfamiliar with the tern, neurodivergence includes the autism spectrum and also those who have mental illnesses such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and obsessive/compulsive disorder, to name a few) and some of Christopher’s experiences are ones I feel myself. I can only hope that the audience learned something about perspective and left with different understanding, as I feel this show had such a sincere and striking way of putting us in Christopher’s shoes.
After only seeing it once, I’ve really fallen in love with this show. It feels very near and dear to my heart and I wish I could see it over and over. It really reveals how much we have to play with in theater and what kind of experiences we can create that can’t be replicated in an other art form. Through the breaking of the fourth wall with the play inside a play structure of the second act, to the visuals and sounds the create Christopher’s experiences, the difficult yet beautiful relationships with in this piece, and the poetry that is given to the maths and sciences that Christopher so loves comes together to create an incredible experience. This is the first touring production of a play I’ve seen and, though plays sadly don’t often tour from Broadway, I’m so grateful this one has.
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is written by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliot. It is playing now through December 4th. Ticket and show information can be found on Hennepin Theater Trust’s website.