'Curious Incident' is a thrilling, funny, and often overstimulating play about autism

Joan Marcus

Joan Marcus Joan Marcus

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a big, long, loud play about a character who likes small, tidy, quiet spaces.

Simon Stephens's 2012 adaptation of Mark Haddon's 2003 novel won the Tony Award for Best Play when it came to Broadway, and no wonder: It's an ambitious script that aims to not only tell a suspenseful story but also convey the subjective experience of its central character, a boy on the autism spectrum. To that end, the National Theatre touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre employs a mix of low-tech physical theater and high-tech special effects.

The fate of the eponymous pet is sealed as soon as you walk into the theater: He lies at center stage, impaled with a pitchfork. The canine cadaver is discovered by 15-year-old Christopher (Adam Langdon, alternating with Benjamin Wheelwright). Falsely suspected of the crime, Christopher resolves to sleuth out the killer's identity. Broadly, the play's first act follows Christopher's attempt to find the culprit; the second chronicles a journey he takes once the case is cracked.

The titular incident is actually just one of many that pack this play, which grows to encompass an extended family drama and a climactic academic test. After a while, the drama becomes diluted but the sheer exuberance of the production's storytelling continues to fascinate, as one scene tumbles into the next with carefully choreographed precision.

Bunny Christie's set is a giant five-sided cube (yes, the sixth wall is broken) marked out with a grid that indicates Christopher's mathematical mindset. Besides the unlucky dog, it's littered with boxes and other props that figure in the action, with yet more later emerging from hidden doors. To indicate changes of scene and focus, the cube's walls and floor blaze with LED lights and projected images, while Adrian Sutton's electronic score thrums insistently. It can be overwhelming, which is precisely the point: That's how a simple subway ride can feel to Christopher.

The audiovisual pyrotechnics help to captivate the Orpheum's audience of thousands, and the performances are also calibrated to reach the upper deck. Under the direction of Marianne Elliott, Langdon portrays Christopher's difference of ability with high theatrics. For example, when a police officer tells the boy to "park" himself on a seat, Christopher maneuvers his body into place making car noises -- then, while the audience laughs, he looks up at the annoyed officer with a confrontational shrug.

The conceit -- which can have the effect of making an autism spectrum disorder feel like vaudeville shtick -- is jarring until (and even after) we realize we're watching a play-within-a-play. If Christopher's misunderstanding responses arrive with ba-dum-bum comic timing, seemingly, it's because this time he knows they're coming, and he knows they're funny.

For all the play's virtues, fans of the novel may find it hard not to miss the book's poignant first-person intimacy. The play's final scene caps the show with a literal burst of virtuoso entertainment: a valediction for Christopher, who's come a long way from the frustrated and misjudged youth we met at the outset. It ends the show on a distinctly self-satisfied note -- but in a country where you can apparently mock someone's disability and still be elected president, it's heartening to see Christopher celebrated with such high-powered pizzazz.