National Theatre’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Paramount stuns with inventive design and entertaining storytelling, writes critic Misha Berson.
Imagine, for a moment, that the human brain is a giant black box rimmed with neon and lined with black graph paper. The box contains the architecture and circuitry of thoughts, emotions and visual and audio perceptions as they crackle and hum in an over-amped psyche.
This container, which takes up the entire stage at the Paramount Theatre, is production designer Bunny Christie’s utterly ingenious setting for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” The production by London’s vaunted National Theatre maps the mind of a 15-year-old autistic boy on a mission with stunning theatrical power and rare compassion.
Showing at the Paramount through Sunday in a worthy U.S. touring edition, “Curious Incident” is based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name. The scary-smart but socially dysfunctional protagonist, Christopher, has the classic signs of Asperger’s syndrome — a subset of autism that, according to the UK’s National Autism Society, makes one “see, hear and feel the world differently” than others.
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’
By Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Through July 30, Paramount Theatre, Seattle; $30 and up (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org).
An admirer of Sherlock Holmes (whose fictive hyper-rationalism might be a sign of Asperger’s), Christopher aims to solve two mysteries: the fate of his long-absent mother and the killing of a neighborhood dog. Through his first-person account, Christopher’s obsessive thinking patterns, social phobias (including a terror of being touched) and mathematical brilliance are cannily revealed, as are his problematic and essential relationships with others and unintentional but keen humor.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- Bill Gates names 5 of his favorite books of 2019
- Hello Kitty's 45th-anniversary pop-up in Bellevue presents an interactive, Instagrammable wonderland
- Thrillers as good as 'Gone Girl'? Here's what you recommend. | The Plot Thickens VIEW
- Oscar winner Colin Firth and wife split after 22 years
- What's there to do in Seattle this weekend? Fun in the snow, silly theater shows and more
Haddon’s prose is dotted with lists (Christopher knows “all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057”), diagrams and the odd math equation, upping the degree of difficulty for any stage adaptation. However, the Tony Award-winning play by Simon Stephens, matched up with sensational production design and Marianne Elliott’s seamless direction, successfully conveys Christopher’s viewpoint. Ironically, this takes leaps of sensory imagination, underpinned by empathy — a very different kind of intelligence than Christopher’s.
During the tumultuous solo trip to London that dominates Act 2, long-sheltered Christopher (tireless, terrific Adam Langdon) encounters the clank and screech of trains, the crush of crowds and signage that most brains filter and temper. For him, the sensory overload is a ferocious assault via thunderous sound (sensitive ears may benefit from earplugs) and frenzied montages by video designer Finn Ross.
When he is emotionally overwhelmed by a run-in with his anxious, hovering father (an intense Gene Gillette), or a neighbor’s indiscretion or a series of impatient policemen, Christopher often comforts himself with numbers, which tumble from the back screen like droplets from a fountain.
Memoirs by high-functioners like Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison have helped dispel some misconceptions and myths about Asperger’s, and “Curious Incident” neither romanticizes nor pities Christopher’s condition. His inability to empathize with others and hair-trigger flight-or-fight response to perceived aggression would challenge any loving parent. When his father loses it entirely over such behavior, it’s understandable — if not completely forgivable. (If Christopher cannot empathize, we can.)
However, interactions with a caring therapist, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) — who helps frame the story by reciting Christopher’s written account — also suggest that some therapies may enhance behavior and emotional intelligence for those with Asperger’s.
But “Curious Incident” isn’t about curing Christopher. Rather, it does one of the things theater does best: It tells an entertaining story while immersing us in the experience and outlook of a fellow human being — one whose brain happens to work differently than ours.