If you haven’t seen the Broadway play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” hurry over to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and get tickets. This not-to-be missed show is based on the 2003 award-winning mystery novel by British writer, Mark Haddon. What starts out as an autistic boy’s determined and torturous effort to “investigate” the death of his neighbor’s dog ends up revealing deeper truths about the boy’s family and how we all must adapt to life’s chaos and disappointments.
As the curtain rises, the audience is immediately confronted with the startling image of a large white dog, lying center-stage with a pitchfork plunged into its side. Kneeling next to the dead dog is Christopher age 15, wailing and rocking, holding his head in his hands. The police arrive and take Christopher away as a suspect. All hell breaks loose as Christopher assaults a police officer—not because he’s guilty or resisting arrest—but simply because he HATES being touched. In addition to this aversion to touch, Christopher is a math genius, who knows every prime number up to 7057, along with the capitals of every country in the world. Yet everyday conversations are an infuriating conundrum for him. Confused by clichés and small talk, Christopher throws terrible tantrums whenever his rigid and orderly world is violated in any way. Played to perfection by Alex Sharp, the character of Christopher comes alive in ways that feel both mesmerizing and exhausting. Throughout Mr. Sharp’s virtuoso performance, I was not only reminded of my daughter Sarah’s meltdowns, but also—and more importantly— of all the similarities AND differences between individuals on the autistic spectrum.
“I see everything. Most other people are lazy,” he tells the audience. Unlike other passengers on a train who observe houses, trees or grass out the window, Christopher can tell you exactly how many
houses there are within a five mile radius. He knows how many red cars are in the street and whether or not they are Chevrolets. However, these detailed observations come with the heavy price of extreme sensory overload. Think you’re so different from Christopher? This production may well convince you otherwise. Piercing lights and sound engulf the audience as well as the characters, forcing us to understand firsthand the curse and blessing of seeing everything all at once.
Staged within a black box grid, the play is brilliant in it use of choreography and sound effects to take you inside Christopher’s head. The audience literally watches Christopher climbing the walls; we also experience the flood of prime numbers in his head as he tries to sleep; and his extreme panic as he navigates a crowded train station, trying to find his way to London while carrying his pet rat. Choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hogget show the cast of characters on and off the train as the writhing whirlpool of humanity they appear to be from Christopher’s perspective. I felt every bit as tortured as the over-stimulated 15 year old boy himself, watching him struggle to buy a ticket, find the correct train and contend with a smelly, disgusting toilet.
Special education teacher Siobhan (Francesca Faridany) plays a helpful and soothing intermediary between Christopher and the audience. By the second act, she has convinced Christopher to turn his written notebook into the play we are watching. Faridany does an excellent job of portraying a respectful mentor with a calming influence on Christopher. He trusts her, and so do we. As a parent of a special needs daughter, I remember feeling that same reciprocity of respect and sense of calm with Sarah’s best teachers. It’s so very important to be understood AND respected for being who we are, no matter what our strengths and challenges happen to be, isn’t it?
“It’s going to be all right,” different people keep assuring Christopher in less-than-convincing voices. We hear these empty reassurances from Christopher’s father, his mother, his teachers, well-meaning neighbors and strangers. But as the play unfolds, we end up sharing Christopher’s view. Nothing will ever be “all right,” but if you’re brave and determined enough to push beyond your worst fears and overcome life’s day-to-day challenges, you—like Christopher—can find comfort and relief.
There are “feel good” moments both large and small In “Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time.” When Christopher allows his palm to make contact with his parent’s palm, the audience feels their love and connection. Likewise, we are proud of Christopher for taking advanced Math tests and achieving “A Stars,” the highest possible grade—despite his anxiety and lack of food or sleep. Is this really so different from how we feel when our neurotypical sons and daughters suffer through SATs and get high scores? Like Temple Grandin, Christopher seems to have a stronger emotional connection with animals than humans. At the start of the play, we see this connection in his extreme grief over his neighbor’s dog, and later we see the tenderness and devotion he displays toward his pet rat. And, for the ultimate “feel good moment,” (dare I say slightly over the top?) an adorable puppy dog makes a cameo appearance toward the finale of the play. There’s even an extra “special” ending to the play for those willing to wait for it (and just about everyone did). That encore was both unexpected and, ironically, EXACTLY what the audience had come to expect: brilliance. But I won’t tell you more. I want you to go see for yourself.