Believe the buzz. The National Theater Production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is spectacular, like Cirque du Soleil with brains. Scribe Simon Stephens has made sensitive work of adapting Mark Haddon’s bestselling book about a high-functioning boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who learns to use his uncanny genius for math to navigate the world. Under Marianne Elliott’s imaginative direction, a brilliant design team allows us to inhabit the boy’s consciousness on a terrifying journey that begins with the death of a dog and ends with his discovery of the power of his own mind.
In his extraordinary debut performance, Alex Sharp (who graduated this spring from Juilliard) plays 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who lives in a suburb of London with his father (Ian Barford, in a searing performance) and attends a school for children with special needs. Christopher exhibits the behavioral traits of hyper-sensitive autistic children, including the screaming meltdowns when someone touches him. But he also has that characteristic and quite wonderful inability to tell a lie, along with a prodigious talent for mathematics that his sympathetic teacher, Siobhan (a radiant Francesca Faridany), cultivates.
Christopher literally has a mind for math. He thinks in numbers. He sees in numbers. His brain is wired to abstract numbers in a way that allows him to see the solar system — indeed, the whole universe — with great clarity. What he can’t relate to is the physical world he lives in, or the human beings he shares that world with.
Faced with the daunting task of translating Christopher’s affinity for numbers into a stageworthy idiom, inventive designers Bunny Christie (sets), Paule Constable (lighting), Finn Ross (video) and Ian Dickinson for Autograph (sound) have devised a three-sided black box divided by a network of white lines into smaller black boxes. It’s a mathematically perfect grid, but whenever the outside world intrudes, the grid splits into flying fragments of letters and numbers, and goes into unnerving convulsions of light and sound and visual projectiles.
Reality intrudes in a violent way when Christopher discovers that the next door neighbor’s dog, named Wellington, has been killed — “murdered,” he insists — with a garden pitchfork. In a show of independence, Christopher vows to find Wellington’s “murderer.”
That task turns into a major quest when he quarrels with his father, defined by Barford’s compassionate perf as someone who is not a violent man, but a man who sometimes does violent things he regrets. At which point, Christopher decides to go to London, haunted by memories of his departed mother Judy. In Enid Graham’s intensely felt perf, she’s a romantic dreamer who proves herself a good woman after all, just flawed in the same all-too-human way that her husband is flawed.
This is the moment when the entire mise-en-scene goes nuts. Christopher’s senses are bombarded by the terrifying cacophony of lights, sounds, and projections that signify civilization, and his mind is battered by the crowds of people (played by a robotically drilled ensemble) who talk and shout and scream and never stop moving. Here’s where master of movement Steven Hoggett steps in. Working with Scott Graham for Frantic Assembly, he’s devised a surreal choreographic language for the ensemble that is straight out of 1930s Expressionism and quite eerie.
The only way Christopher manages to survive in this nightmarish world he’s blundered into is by drawing on his mathematical wits. The boy is never more endearing than when he’s applying his mathematically logical mind to a problem, like analyzing the kind of person who might kill a dog, or explaining to the vicar why there is no heaven and no God. Young Sharp is quite wonderful at such moments, his face so open and receptive to thought.
Now, with Siobhan’s voice in his head, Christopher forces himself to find the order in the disorderly world around him. “Count the rhythm in your head like when you’re doing music,” she patiently instructs him. “Left, right, left, right.” And in a real crisis, he can always calm himself by reciting prime numbers, all the way to infinity.
Christopher’s efforts to overcome his fears and function in the world outside his own mind put him in terrifying situations. (Case in point: he jumps onto the Underground train tracks to rescue the pet rat he brought along for company.) But when he does succeed, the designers pull out all the stops and have him navigating an escalator in mid-air, or striding sideways halfway up a wall. We, the audience, live for such moments — and damn the sentimentality.
Christopher’s identity quest would be a lot easier if he weren’t constantly being undermined by the people who inhabit the real world. His memorable line to this effect — “I find people confusing” — has rightly made it onto the show’s commemorative T-shirt. “When people tell you what to do it is usually confusing and doesn’t make sense.”
This is, after all, a coming of age story, so it’s hardly a spoiler to say that, after tumbling all the way down to the bottom of the rabbit hole, Christopher makes it back alive — and triumphant.