The basic rule of adaptation is simple: Don’t mess with a masterpiece. That should now come with the proviso “Unless the adaptation is written by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne ‘War Horse’ Elliott.” Their riveting, emotional, intensely theatrical re-imagining of Mark Haddon’s multi-prizewinning bestseller “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time” is nothing short of a triumph.

Initially couched as a murder mystery, both book and play open with Christopher (played here by Luke Treadaway) having discovered his neighbour’s murdered dog. Christopher, aged 15 years, 3 months and 2 days, determines to solve the mystery. That’s all well and good, but Christopher has severe behavioral difficulties that don’t allow him to understand the complex emotional circumstances that surround the dog’s death. As much more than he bargained for is revealed, his ability to cope is put under distressing pressure.

Christopher’s ability to function in the world is highly compromised, his perspective being so wholly idiosyncratic. He screams when touched, abhors certain colors, relentlessly tell the truth and has a ruthlessly exact, mathematical mind that struggles with the idea of empathy.

There are, to put it mildly, huge pitfalls attendant upon dramatizing so intensely personal a first-person narrative, not least because Christopher’s connection to other people is so fractured. The novel exists within Christopher’s private world which is, initially at least, seen solely from his perspective. That ought to present obstacles to dramatization since presenting characters on stage show people in three dimensions. Yet this translation of the narrative allows neither Christopher’s vision nor Haddon’s concept to be diluted.

The role of Christopher’s teacher Siobhan (watchful, resolute Niamh Cusack), is considerably extended. She, in part, narrates the book Christopher is writing. And, as is gradually revealed to the audience, the closeness of their relationship encourages him to let his story be turned into the play we are watching. Done with the lightest of touches, this justifies the public presentation of private thought, allows for leaps in chronology and adds terrific jolts of wit as stern Christopher “corrects” the long-suffering actors’ interpretations.

Indeed, part of the success of the production is its highwire-act nature. On the face of it, the traumas that Christopher and his family struggle with shouldn’t leave room for laughter, but there’s plenty of it. That counterbalances an absolute refusal to soften the intensity of the extreme pain caused by the characters’ deceits.

Elliott weaves every element at her disposal to encourage audiences to understand the nature and importance of empathy, which is at the heart of the novel.

The economy of the script allows audiences to do imaginative work, with potentially patronizing explanation avoided in favor of vivid illustration. Christopher’s mathematical obsessions are literally illuminated via Paule Constable’s lighting patterns and projections racing across Bunny Christie’s immensely versatile, graph-paper-like floor. For this intimate, in-the-round staging, the floor becomes extraordinarily versatile, serving as a teacher’s chalkboard or, in a heart-in-mouth scene, opening out to reveal a tube-train tunnel down into which Christopher heedlessly leaps.

Elliot’s command of focus, aided and abetted by an indivisible sound and visuals team, is abetted by the eloquence of the non-naturalistic staging martialled by movement directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (“American Idiot,” “Black Watch”).

However, the production’s abandonment of mawkishness is its truest hallmark, a tribute to the power and discretion of the central performances.

As the father driven to extremes, Paul Ritter movingly shows a man almost bizarrely energised by anger and exhaustion, which make his agonies compelling. Likewise, Nicola Walker’s mother eschews sentimentality by refusing to linger on her character’s suffering.

But dictating the tone of everything and everyone is Luke Treadaway. Last seen at the NT as the original boy in “War Horse,” his Christopher is ruthlessly defiant, never stooping to plead for sympathy. His chin lifted with undoubting self-possession, he never comments upon his character, attacking every moment with taut concentration and stark physicality that contrasts upsettingly with his furious, fearful retreats into himself.

That restraint and the production’s exhilarating and insightful deployment of its technical and theatrical vision achieve a profound emotional impact. The worldwide screening via NTLive Sept. 6 is likely to be the best possible advertisement for the production, but for maximum impact it needs to be experienced live. As long as casting is available to extend the initially sold-out run, this potential award-magnet deserves to run and run.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Cottesloe, National Theater, London; 363 seats; £32 $51 top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Simon Stephens adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Marianne Elliott.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Ian Dickinson; music, Adrian Sutton; movement, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett; video, Finn Ross; production stage manager, Jane Suffling. Opened, reviewed, Aug. 2, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
  • Cast: Christopher Boone - Luke Treadaway<br> Siobhan - Niamh Cusack<br> Ed - Paul Ritter<br> Judy - Nicola Walker<br> Mrs Alexander - Una Stubbs<br> With Matthew Barker, Sophie Duval, Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty, Nick Sidi, Howard Ward.