Broadway’s most elaborate new spectacle features flashes of light that should come with a warning for epileptics, a staircase that materializes out of nowhere, and a boy running vertically up the walls one moment and floating through space the next. Nope, you didn’t wander into Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. (Thank God.) All the technical wizardry in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings to life the way a 15-year-old boy on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum views a confusing, overwhelming world.
British author Marc Haddon’s 2003 novel of the same name wouldn’t, upon first read, appear to be a great candidate for a stage adaptation. Yet in the hands of director Marianne Elliott and playwright Simon Stephens, the production makes its way to Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre after busting blocks on London’s West End. It opens as our teenage hero, Christopher (Alex Sharp), discovers a neighborhood dog impaled by a pitchfork. Armed with a stellar mathematical mind but a total lack of social skills—he’s clueless to other people’s nonverbal cues or use of metaphor—Christopher sets out to find the dead pooch’s murderer, but in the process, learns dark secrets about his harried single father, Ed (Ian Barford), and the truth about his long-lost mother, Judy (Enid Graham).
Christopher’s special-needs teacher, Siobhan (Francesca Faridany), narrates his story by reading aloud from his journal, and all along, an intricate confluence of sound, lighting, choreography, and prop work manifest the inner workings of Christopher’s brilliant but overstimulated mind: The walls and floor glow with numbers as Christopher solves equations; lights strobe like firing synapses when he’s touched (Christopher hates being touched); sinister techno music blares as he takes a terrifying trip to London. In a state of extreme turmoil, Christopher leaps around while assembling a working model train set that spans the entire stage, complete with miniature shrubbery and storefronts. Later, he faces a death-defying moment with an actual speeding train.
For all the high-tech bells and whistles, some aspects of the show have a refreshingly analog quality. There are no distinct scene breaks—the ensemble members clear props and set the stage with the exuberance of an improv troupe, and all the actors rely heavily on pantomime. Bunny Christie’s elegantly designed set—a gridded cube with an open fourth wall—can look like the mainframe from TRON when it’s plugged in, a geometry classroom chalkboard when it’s not.
That said, the dazzling execution far outshines the story. Christopher’s parents? drama plays out like a plodding soap, and the idea of an Aspbergers-afflicted protagonist seems less groundbreaking than when Haddon’s novel was first appeared. Eleven years later, it sometimes feels like a tired device to elicit equal measures of pathos and comedy. (At one point, Christopher makes beeping noises while backing into a chair after being told to ”park” himself.)
One element unifies the spectacle and the human journey: Alex Sharp’s performance. A recent graduate of Juilliard, he somehow looks even younger than his character, but brings gravitas to Christopher’s facial ticks and flat affect, even amid balletic choreography, slow-motion acrobatics, and countless technical cues. (He deserves a special Tony for onstage circle-drawing—he draws several freakishly perfect chalk smiley faces during the course of the show).
Like Christopher’s brain, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is better wired to master machinery than emotions. But Christopher’s is still a beautiful mind. A-