The Poetic Equation: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

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Adam Langdon and the company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

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.

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Mrs. Alexander (Amelia White) shares a story with Christopher (Adam Langdon). (Photo: Joan Marcus)

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.

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Adam Langdon as Christopher. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

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.

Catching Up: Responses to Recent Productions

Although I’ve seen several productions over the last month and a half, there hasn’t been anything especially compelling to write about, with one exception.  Having seen several “serious” productions in San Francisco as well as two more commercial ventures in Walnut Creek, I can tell you the commercial stuff won hands down.  Center Rep’s production of the spectacularly superficial sex farce Boeing Boeing, featured a splendid mid-century “modern” set design by Erik Flatmo, and two great performances, the comically unhinged Alex Moggridge (whose Romeo of ten years ago or so remains the best I’ve seen) as the rube among sophisticates, and the statuesque Jennifer Erdmann as a Lufthansa stewardess, belting a line like “I can’t find my loofah” as if announcing the annexation of Poland.  Liam Vincent as the swinging bachelor whose juggling of love affairs with three stewardesses predictably leads to disaster, and Jessica Lynn Carroll and Kelsey Venter as the other two stews, also did fine work.

Alex Moggridge, Jennifer Erdmann, and Jessica Lynn Carroll flying the friendly skies in Center Rep's "Boeing Boeing."

The show I would have liked to write about at greater length, but saw too late in its run, was Diablo Theatre Company’s mounting of The Drowsy Chaperone.  I admired the Broadway production, which was clever and very slickly produced, but I loved Diablo’s production—less slick, but funnier and somehow more touching.  I say “somehow” but it’s pretty clear what made it so: Michael Patrick Gaffney’s performance as Man in Chair, the role originated by the show’s co-author Bob Martin.

Michael Patrick Gaffney shares his love in Diablo's "The Drowsy Chaperone."

We’re only in March, but I’m tempted to say Gaffney’s is the performance of the year.  He brought a deeper pathos and substance than Martin did on Broadway to his portrayal of a man lonely and alone, but still quick with a quip and possessed of a mordant wit.  Gaffney’s Man in Chair was a man withdrawn from life after a long history of disappointments, but whose passion could still be stirred by the cast album of a silly 1920s musical that he plays for the audience, providing commentary along the way.  Gossiping about the cast and back-story of the Jazz Age relic, his eyes shone and his face lit up, and when moved to dance and sing along with the music, Gaffney made his actions things of beauty.  His Man in Chair knows the show is silly escapism, but given the current state of his existence, that’s what he wants most.

Gaffney’s depth and commitment made the show’s comedy richer and funnier.  There were problems with the production (it seemed underlit, and at the performance I saw, there were late lighting cues and some sub-par spotlight work—it also didn’t help that the Thursday night audience seemed unaware they were allowed to laugh), but when the amazing Sharon Rietkirk sings “Show Off,” the terrific number where the show within the show’s leading lady announces she’s abandoning her successful stage career to get married  (“I don’t wanna wear this no more./ Play the saucy Swiss Miss no more./ Blow my signature kiss no more./ I don’t wanna show off”) and the rest of the cast is busy show-casing her as she spins plates, undergoes miraculous quick changes, performs magic tricks, and belies the song’s lyrics in every conceivable way, it’s expertly staged bliss.  (Daren A.C. Corollo directed and Sheri Stockdale did the choreography.)  Other highlights: Leanne Borghesi’s belting out the inspirational ode to being tipsy, “As We Stumble Along,” Dan LeGate’s ridiculous accent as the rakish Adolpho (Man in Chair describes the actor portraying Adolpho as “the man of a 1,000 accents, all of them offensive”), and the very funny Samantha Bruce as Kitty, the starlet hoping to marry her way to stardom.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" ensemble takes off.

Over in the county of San Fran, my theatergoing has been a little drearier.  I was looking forward to the New Conservatory Theatre Center’s production of Paul Rudnick’s Regrets Only. Rudnick, author of Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and the movie Addams Family Values, can be hilarious, but Regrets Only is a social problem play (about gay marriage) told in an ostensibly high-comic style.  Rudnick’s characters don’t quip so much as perform extended routines for the benefit of some unseen audience.  (Certainly not for our benefit.)  On top of this the NCTC cast had no facility for the style, shouting their lines and pushing the jokes, and the set design, meant to replicate a swanky Manhattan apartment, was shabby looking and tasteless.  Perhaps the second act was better.  I wouldn’t know since I got the hell out of there at intermission.

The regrettable "Regrets Only" at NCTC.

A more valiant effort was to be found at the San Francisco Playhouse’s presentation of British playwright Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan.  Admirably acted (especially by Susi Damilano, Joy Carlin, Michael Keys Hall, Richard Frederick, and Daniel Redmond), competently staged by director Amy Glazer, and featuring a wonderful, ghostly set design by Bill English based on the artist Rachel Whiteread’s large-scale plaster works, Harper Regan had some genuinely affecting moments, but Stephens is another one of those British playwrights (like Patrick Marber) who’s too heavily influenced by Pinter and Mamet.  Despite a somewhat happy (and unsatisfactorily pat) ending, the script is too sour, too bitter to be engrossing.

Next up: a review of Cutting Ball’s Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and two other short plays by the celebrated (though not by me) Will Eno.

Susi Damilano and Daniel Redmond in SF Playhouse's "Harper Regan."

Regrets Only plays through April 3 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market Street), San Francisco.  For more information call (415) 861-8972 or go to http://www.nctcsf.org.