Stages

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A Heartbreaking Masterpiece for Teens and Adults

Adam Langdon (center) in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Adam Langdon (center) in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a Holmesian mystery told from the perspective of a 15-year-old British boy with autism. I was apprehensive to attend the Broadway in Chicago production last week because I haven’t read Mark Haddon’s young adult novel on which the play is based. My wariness was wasted in this case. Marianne Elliot’s direction of Simon Stephens’ adaptation was a pervasive experience of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, in this case the main character Christopher’s. The performance was family-friendly without being the least bit juvenile. With poignance, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time asks us to consider the social and economic accessibility and opportunity for those with challenges. With a deft hand, we are reminded of the value of human connection, even when the world outside us is confusing, scary and unknowable.

On a superficial level it’s the story of a teenage boy investigating the death of a neighborhood dog. But as his adventure unfolds before him, the investigation becomes Christopher’s first step toward independence. He’s a savant in the style of Charlie Babbitt, incredibly logical, literal and adept with math, but utterly lost when it comes to human interaction. The murder of Wellington, his neighbor’s dog, and the suggestion that Christopher might be involved is enough to force him to break out and begin talking to his neighbors, to question his father.

The talented production design team, including multiple Tony award winners, managed to project Christopher’s subjective worldview for the audience to experience. The play takes place within a computerized black box– a representation of Christopher’s consciousness. The audience is the fourth wall looking in on the set. Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, the set and video designers respectively, presented a grid-like, number-filled world. Dialogue that Christopher found confusing or alarming would repeat flashing on the walls of the set. As he traveled, the outlined square structures of buildings would shift around on the walls allowing us to follow him and understand how he makes sense of the streets he walks on. The lighting by Paule Constable and the sound by Ian Dickinson worked cohesively to create a multisensory experience for the audience. When Adam Langdon’s Christopher enters a train station mid-way through his adventure, he’s overwhelmed by the noise, the people, and the excess of stimuli. His panic is palpable in the cacophony of noise, the flashing text on the walls, the red lights, and in the quick jarring movements of the crowd.

Christopher translates life into math problems. Photo by Madeline Fex.

Christopher translates life into math problems. Photo by Madeline Fex.

Steven Hogett and Scott Graham’s choreography was most intrinsic to the social interactions that make Christopher’s experience of reality so different. In the first few moments of the play, after discovering his neighbor’s dead dog, Christopher is questioned by a police officer and the conversation devolves into this hazy, scary exchange. Christopher smoothly duels a police officer. We see his actions as liquid and continuous, more a dance and a reaction than an attack. He is of course assaulting a police officer without provocation. Hogett and Graham did a wonderful job of showing the menace and threat in touch and limited personal space for someone with sensory issues.

My favorite moment in the play was a very brief interaction between Christopher and his dad played by Gene Gillette. Christopher’s dad comes home to find his son collapsed on the floor, soaked in urine and surrounded by letters he had been hiding from Christopher. As he begins to help his son change into clean clothes, he pauses and temporarily hugs his unconscious child, emphasizing both the difficulty in raising a child unable to handle normal physical contact even from family members, and the loneliness of raising a child with differences as a single parent. There were a couple really heartbreaking moments like these interspersed with moments of cleverness and wit. It’s a credit to the ensemble that they swung between the two emotions gracefully.  Most of my favorite jokes belonged to Josephine Hall’s portrayal of Christopher’s school principal, though Amelia White’s elderly neighbor and Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan the therapist pulled off clever lines as well.

Adam Langdon adeptly portrayed Christopher.* He was smart but also pathetic, at times cruel and needy, and entirely perfect in the role. I look forward to seeing Langdon in future roles, though it will be difficult to imagine him as anyone other than 15-year-old Christopher Boone.

This is a story that sticks with you. The last lines of the play continue to reverberate in my mind, “I can do anything! I can do anything! I can do anything?” Can someone like Christopher Boone accomplish anything he sets his mind to? No, probably not. Yet, like Christopher, we all have to push ourselves to deal with others around us, communicate with, interact and care for others. We have to make sense of the world around us even though it seems impossible. Even if and when we do this, it won’t always work out. We will not always get what we deserve or desire.

The Broadway in Chicago production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be playing at the Oriental Theatre through December 24. Tickets range in price from $22 to $122, and are available for purchase here.

*The role of Christopher is being shared between Adam Langdon and Benjamin Wheelwright. You might see either actor depending on the night you attend. 

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4 replies »

  1. Thank you for adding this comment and joining the discussion. Can you suggest any novels, plays or films that offer a more true to life representation of autism?

    • Ever since Curious Incident, I’ve avoided most narratives marketed on the basis that their protagonist is autistic. The only one I’ve read recently was the Rosie Project, which while charming and genuinely amusing, didn’t seem authentic to me. If you want to see other autistics criticise novels about autism, check out this blog: disabilityinkidlit.com/disability/autism/.

      As far as fiction goes, I’d recommend engaging with works by autistic creators. The show Community, created by the autistic Dan Harmon, has a well-written and sympathetic autistic character whose absurdities make sense by sitcom standards. Dan Aykroyd is also autistic, and I’m certain that the characters he plays in Blues Brothers, Dragnet, and Coneheads are as well. (These aren’t exactly realistic depictions, more like autistic daydreams.)

      Getting more speculative, I’m convinced the great Franz Kafka was on the spectrum. His novels The Castle and Amerika are good approximations of how I feel as an autistic navigating neurotypical society, with all its gratuitous sadism, the suspicion that everyone knows something you don’t, and the opaque, constantly shifting and ultimately arbitrary social norms you’re expected to follow if you want to be treated like a human being. Similar claims have been made for Hans Christian Anderson, and between his eccentricities, The Ugly Duckling and the Emperor’s New Clothes, these claims are worth considering.

      Beyond that, the search for decent autism representation moves into the murky waters of headcanons. My favorite is the titular protagonist of Garth Nix’s Clariel, who reminds me of some of the female posters at Wrong Planet, is absolutely passionate about being a forest ranger, and has to be mentored through a conversation by her cousin and his kindly girlfriend on her first day of school. (The book is also refreshingly frank about her asexuality.) Ignatius Reilly, the guy from Confederacy of Dunces, seems autistic in his dedication to medievalism, unconventional manner of socializing, and aversion to bright lights. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice could be another one, in that he doesn’t know how to behave at parties and has even less of a clue about how to start a relationship. Of course, these are all highly subjective.

      Your best bet is to read autobiographies written by autistics. I haven’t read many of these, but I can recommend Dawn Prince Hughes’ Songs of a Gorilla Nation and Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures. There’s actually a pretty good biopic about Grandin, and somewhere there’s even a musical about her. It should be noted that Grandin is controversial among some autistics for endorsing ABA therapy, an abusive practice which shares similarities and common roots with some gay conversion therapies.

      But not even the most authentic character could represent all autistics. After all, anything you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic. That’s why entertainment media isn’t the best way to learn about autism. The best way to learn about autism is by listening to autistics, and the best way to do that is by lurking on online autistic spaces like Wrong Planet or Twitter’s #actuallyautistic hashtag. Blogs are another invaluable source; autisticsspeakingday.blogspot.com.au would be a great place to start.

  2. Many autistics loathe Curious Incident because the author did no research on autism, instead writing a character who embodies the worst stereotypes of the condition. This is why neither Mark Haddon or the National Theatre will never refer to Christopher as autistic, allowing themselves to exploit the public’s interest in autism without taking responsibility for how they represent it. If you want to do more research on this problem, I suggest starting with my pamphlet:
    curiousonscreen.tumblr.com/post/143152217129/curious-facts-about-the-curious-incident.

    Don’t bother with the book. You could be immortal and life would still be too short for a novel so contrived, gimmicky, poorly plotted and charmlessly misanthropic. Seriously, none of these characters are likeable.

    I’d advise anyone genuinely interested in learning how autistics view the world to avoid wasting their money in this show, and instead spend an afternoon browsing the forums at WrongPlanet.net

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