'The Curious Incident' Brings To Life The Great Pains (And Pleasures) Of Living On The Autism Spectrum
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
"I find people confusing" is both one of the opening lines and a defining mantra for the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name by British author Mark Haddon. The story centers on a 15-year-old boy named Christopher who has Asperger syndrome — though we're never told that explicitly either in the book or the play — which is now on a national tour after a successful two-year Broadway run and Tony Award for Best Play, and opened at the Golden Gate Theater Wednesday night. Instead, Christopher is introduced to us just as an odd, math-obsessed boy trying to solve a mystery after he's blamed for the death of a neighbor's dog.
The first-person novel, touted in particular for Haddon's ability to channel the exacting frustrations and accidental humor of a high-functioning autistic teenager while also telling a compelling story from a unique perspective, seems like an incredibly difficult thing to translate to the stage. But director Marianne Elliott and playwright Simon Stephens did just that with great ingenuity, beginning by having the tale, told in Christopher's voice, actually narrated by his therapist and counselor Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), through the device of her reading from the "book" Christopher writes about his life. Occasionally we hear the story directly through Christopher's mouth, and at other times we get it secondhand, through Siobhan, or through the voice of his absent mother (Felicity Jones Latta) in his head.
As Christopher in this production, young Juilliard-trained actor Adam Langdon is stellar at portraying Christopher's forthright confidence as well as his extremes of emotional trauma in the face of a deeply confusing and chaotic world. We watch as he obsessively builds a train set while from his head we hear his mother reading letters she's written to him, and we hear him interact with neighbors, all of whom are equally friends and strangers to him. Also, by Act 2, we see him head to London in a particularly jarring and traumatic sequence in which he is forced to navigate a new city and underground train system with very little natural ability to do either. I'm not sure I've ever, on television or in the movies, seen as evocative or effective a portrayal of the experience of an autistic person's trauma in the face of loud noise and unfamiliar human contact — lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Ia Dickinson deserve high praise for creating a violently percussive, horrible, and cacophonous soundscape.
In a 2003 interview with NPR's Terry Gross about his novel, Haddon said, "I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger syndrome." He added, "I gave [Christopher] kind of nine or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn't read any more about Asperger's because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger syndrome, and they're as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society."
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is ultimately a comment on patience, as we watch Christopher mom and dad (Gene Gillette) try in different ways to understand and comfort their son, and explain a the sometimes inexplicable vagaries of the human condition to someone less equipped than most to parse them. And, thankfully, the play doesn't reduce Christopher to a caricature of an illness (ahem, Rain Man and many other movie portrayals of autism), perhaps because of Haddon's effort to make the central voice of his novel as nuanced as any human being. And in addition to being able to viscerally experience some of Christopher's pains in trying to exist in a city, we get a vicarious sense of his joys, too, especially his love of animals, and equations.
Despite some difficult subject matter and some experimental execution — kudos too to some brilliant choreography by Scott Graham that uses the entire ensemble, at times, to hoist Christopher through his distracted waking life — the play ends in a fairly satisfying triumph I don't need to spoil here. But, pro tip: Don't be too quick to jump out of your seat during the curtain call.
'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' runs through July 23. Find tickets here. Also find $35 mobile rush tickets via the TodayTix app.