Most Broadway tours that reach Charlotte take us inside characters’ hearts, from the mad passion of “The Phantom of the Opera” to the sad yearning of the heroine in “The Bridges of Madison County.”
But “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” thrusts us into a character’s head: the unconventional, overstimulated brain of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, whose mental makeup isolates him from much of society. He has a heart, else he wouldn’t keep a pet rat or try to find out who killed a neighbor’s dog. But Simon Stephens’ play, which adapts Mark Haddon’s novel, keeps us thinking and seeing as Christopher thinks and sees – and what a strange vision it is.
The title refers to the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” in which a dog remains quiet because it knows a villain. But this story’s not a whodunit: It’s a whydunit, in which the killing unlocks emotions and reveals secrets Christopher’s family wanted to keep hidden. His journey into the world – literally to find the truth, metaphorically to learn to adapt to society – provides one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in 50 years of playgoing.
The sensory assault begins at Belk Theater before anyone speaks: A thunderous beat throbs, guitars grind and strobe lights flash as Christopher (Adam Langdon) discovers the dead dog. (Even the first words, uttered by someone else, are “Holy f---!”)
Luckily, the play calms down quickly. Director Marianne Elliott, who won one of its five Tony Awards, alternates moments of serenity with ones where we’re blasted with visual and auditory chatter. Christopher has dreams and fantasies, and those sometimes play out in motion that’s slowed down or sped up.
Neither Stephens nor Haddon specifies his condition, though critics have often referred to autism or Asperger’s syndrome. He speaks with head lowered and eyes averted, fears the touch even of people he loves, clenches his hands in frustration, retreats into patterns of speaking or walking when flustered.
He’s intelligent and brave, and his math skills amaze teachers; if you stay after the curtain call, Langdon returns as Christopher to solve a complex math equation with visual effects on a huge screen. Langdon’s performance imprints the character unforgettably on your brain, though Benjamin Wheelwright steps in on Thursdays, Saturday matinee and Sunday evening (as he did on Broadway).
Christopher may dominate the story, but Langdon’s matched with strong actors. Gene Gillette stands out in Act 1 as his weary, rage-prone, ultimately loving father; Felicity Jones Latta comes into her own in Act 2 as the overwhelmed mother who walked away, and Maria Elena Ramirez anchors both acts as wise teacher Siobhan. (The play presents the story as the theatrical adaptation of a book Christopher wrote.)
Tonys went to lighting designer Paule Constable and scenic designers Bunny Christie and Finn Ross. The most intriguing Tony may be the one it didn’t win: Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett got a nomination for choreography, an amazing achievement for a non-musical. (Christopher Wheeldon won for “An American in Paris,” which dazzled Charlotte last month.) So complex is “Curious Incident,” so seamless in presenting Christopher’s churning world, that every movement counts.