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Mesmerizing “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a must see!

Roy Berko

(Member, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)

Christopher, age 15, the character at the center of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” has Asperger’s Syndrome.  AS is one of the five classifications of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” (DSM).

Asperger’s is characterized by “severe deficits in social interaction and communication.”  It is fairly common for those with the syndrome to display inconsistent eye contact when speaking to others. They often lack the ability to pick up appropriate topics for discussion, usually interrupting when they want to say something, paying no attention to the needs of  others.

Another common sign is sensitive to being touched or of having their space invaded.  There is also a tendency to be obsessive compulsive, making sure things are in the order which they perceive as “correct”  and setting up routines that must be followed.  If their rules are broken, they act out with loud noises, physical aggression, or huffily retreating.  Those with AS are often physically clumsy.

Asperger’s kids are sometimes nicknamed “little professors,” as they tend to have above average intelligence, and are commonly skilled in a particular subject, such as mathematics..

It’s 1998 in Swindon, England.  Christopher stands over the dead body of Wellington, a large dog owned by his neighbor.  This incident takes the fifteen-year old boy out of his comfort zone and he overreacts by attacking the policeman who comes to investigate the killing when the law enforcement agent attempts to touch him.  Christopher has difficulty conveying his ideas and starts yelling when the policeman questions him.  His movements are flailing and jerky.

The story is told in the form of a narrator reading a book that Christopher has written about his life as part of a school assignment.  The tale is acted out by Christopher, his father, his estranged mother, his neighbors, and others he meets on his path of investigation and discovery of not only who killed the dog, but who Christopher really is.

The tangled plot includes several infidelities, Christopher’s desire to take the A-level math exam for which he is too young to be eligible, and his discovery of reveling letters that leads him to distrust his father.  Pushing against his strong desires for security and order, Christopher undertakes the daunting task of leaving his neighborhood, taking a train to London, and searching for his mother.  There is a reconnection with his mother, a return to Swindon, readjusting to his father, and his sitting for the A-level test,.  As Christopher has promised the audience, he gets his A grade, “the best possible score.”

We learn from the tale that as Christopher says, “I have been very brave.”  Yes, he has solved the mystery of Wellington’s murder, conquered the trip to London, found his mother, and writing a book that tells the tale!

The production under the guidance of director Marianne Elliott is mesmerizing.  The story grabs and holds attention.  The pacing is crisp and involving.  The acting is superb.  The technical aspects amaze.

Finn Ross’s video design is awesome.  Electronically, the audience is carried inside Christopher’s mind, tracing his thought processes as he solves problems, and follows street maps as he wends his way.  The viewers vicariously fall off subway tracks with him.  The entire stage, which is a large electronic light box, is like a large computer game which takes on the aura of being an additional character.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate, makes his Broadway debut as Christopher.  Sharp doesn’t portray Christopher, he is Christopher.  Eyes blinking, hands flailing, reacting to being touched, avoiding eye contact, losing physical control, shrieking–he lives the life of a boy with Asperger’s.

The rest of the cast, each of whom play multiple roles, are all excellent.  They mold together to create the people in Christopher’s life.

During one scene, Christopher starts to explain to the audience how he solved one of the problems on his A-level math test.  He gets carried away with details.  The narrator explains to him that the audience probably isn’t interested in all the details, but anyone who is can stay after the play is over and Christopher can then explain the details in three minutes.  With a plan set, he is willing to stop the discourse.

After the traditional curtain call, the actors start leaving the stage.  Sharp suddenly turns, transforms himself back into Christopher and, arms swinging, hands flailing, eyes blinking, voice going into a high pitch, yells, “Wait, I forgot to tell you how I solved the problem.  It will only take three minutes.”  The audience froze in place. He proceeds, as the stage clock counts down the time, and the electronics illustrate his thinking process.  And, as promised, he finishes in exactly three minutes, smiles, and awkwardly runs off the stage!

Capsule judgement:  The production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is outstanding on every level.  Well written, creatively staged and exceptionally acted, it is a highlight of the Fall, 2014 season.  It well-deserved the screaming standing ovation it received.  To add to the excitement, Alex Sharp gives a Tony Award winning performance! 

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is in an open-ended run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, New York