The set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (designed by Bunny Christie, who also did the costumes) is a large, open cube. The three sides seen by the audience are lined by a grid that looks like the graph paper used in math classes, and the vertical center line is the axis of origin, which has a small arrow at the top of it. You first notice the letter “M” toward the top of this line and immediately underneath it is the letter “E,” spelling “ME.” When you look closer you see above the “ME” a “T” partially obscured by the arrow of the axis, and underneath that, an “I.” You’re actually seeing “ME” in “TIME.”
Mark Haddon’s extraordinary 2003 novel, in which Christopher Boone, an autistic 15-year-old (actually, “15 years and 3 months and 2 days”), decides to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog, has become an extraordinary piece of theatre. Adapted by Simon Stephens (Harper Reagan, Heisenberg) and directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, so she has experience making extraordinary theater), the show begins with Christopher’s teacher Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) reading aloud from the book Christopher has written. (It’s his account of his investigation, conducted in the manner of his hero, Sherlock Holmes.) The words are exactly the same as Haddon’s novel, and I was worried Stephens would follow the book too literally. In the first act, the words and the events do hew closely to Haddon’s work, but the committed and energetic work of Benjamin Wheelwright, who played Christopher the night I attended (Wheelwright performs the role on Wednesday nights and some matinees. Adam Langdon performs otherwise) and Elliott’s staging won me over, and by the time we have a flashback to a distant time on the beach with Christopher’s now absent mother (Felicity Jones Latta), the noise of the outside world and its confusing, noisy humans subsiding and we see how in his own way, Christopher misses his mother profoundly, we have an evening of transcendent theater.
Christopher lives with his working-class father (Gene Gillette) who loves his son, but isn’t always capable of doing the right thing by him. (And Christopher isn’t always capable of accepting the right thing when it is done.) Christopher is overly literal, does not understand metaphor, and cannot lie. (The show is thus rich in metaphor and very much concerned with lies and with truth.) As he continues in his detective work, an older neighborhood woman (superbly played by Amelia White), suffering from her own isolation, tries to make friends with Christopher and tells him a shocking story about the dog’s owner, Mrs. Shears. Christopher soon discovers more truths than he ever counted on, and decides to run away to London. This boy who can’t stand crowds and can’t stand to be touched, decides to risk all that to escape betrayals at home and seek answers in London.
Elliott’s imaginative staging fills the blank grid of the set. Christopher constructs a train set as part of his therapy, and when assembled, it becomes his escape vehicle. At one point, Wheelwright is hoisted up horizontally by two of the cast members and he runs around the three walls sideways. (The movement choreography, precise, complicated, but executed so that it appears deceptively simple, is by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.) Most of the cast play two or three or more roles, and Ian Dickinson’s sound design can transform the space into an idyllic seaside or a nightmarishly loud Tube station. What also fills the enormous grid is Wheelwright’s performance. On stage and in motion almost the entire time, Wheelwright darts from one side of the stage to the other, detecting, constructing, observing, explaining—imbuing the character with poetry despite his protestations that the poetic is unfathomable.
In the second act, Siobhan asks Christopher to turn his book into a play for the class to perform, and Christopher refuses, because, he says, actors pretend, making theater “a kind of lie.” And we realize we’re watching Christopher’s, and Haddon’s, and Stephens’, and Elliott’s beautiful, theatrical lie, forcing us to reexamine all that has come before, and it’s almost unbearable. (This is a genius addition on Stephens’ part.)
The only aspect of the production that didn’t quite work for me was Gillette’s performance as Christopher’s father, Ed. We’re told that Ed is quite good with Christopher, but Gillette tends to both over-emote and keep everything on the same level, so we never see a truly relaxed or natural moment between him and his son. Unlike the scenes with Latta, which have an ease and comfort to them even when Christopher is in the middle of a freak-out. The rest of the cast is amazing, whether called upon to be naturalistic in certain scenes, or expressionistic and theatrical in others.
Haddon’s book ends triumphantly, with Christopher writing “…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” The play ends with Christopher saying this to Siobhan, adding “Can’t I?” She looks forward and says nothing. “Can’t I?” Christopher repeats. Siobhan is both refusing to lie to him and asking the audience to answer his question. Can he? It tears you apart.
The heat and the hubbub may be down the block where Hamilton is playing, but The Curious Incident is where the magic and the mystery are. There isn’t a better show currently playing in the Bay Area.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues through July 23 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street (at Market), San Francisco, 94102. Tickets and other information: www.shnsf.com.