This review is based on the August 3rd performance.
With a growing number of children/teenagers now falling somewhere on the autism spectrum (with the odds now at 45:1 that those between 3 and 17 years of age would be diagnosed as such, according to the CDC), it is admirable to make the majority population more aware of the autistic experience. Those with autism may suffer from symptoms of anxiety, shyness, sensory overload, impulsiveness, and the inability to process certain emotions as readily as the rest of us do.
The protagonist of Mark Haddon’s novel released in 2003 called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” — adapted into a five-time Tony Award-winning play that will run through September 10th at the Ahmanson Theatre — encapsulates these challenges, amid perseverance and the gift of exceptional cognitive ability. Fifteen-year-old fictional character, Christopher Boone of Swindon, England, is an autistic adolescent, who is able to grasp information at an uncanny rate, and whose story is more or less guided along via his para-social relationship with Siobhan, his favorite teacher, in this play within a play.
Christopher is a boy who is unable to lie, can’t use the bathroom if it’s been recently used by someone else, needs his own space, loves the color red, wants to be an astronaut, is superbly proficient in math, has a pet rat named Toby, and an affinity for Sherlock Holmes. He particularly takes on the investigative characteristics of the latter when Wellington, a dog belonging to his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Shears, is randomly found dead with a garden fork jutting out from its fur at the outset of the play. This revelation sparks a momentum down a winding and overwhelming path where the individuals around Christopher uncover a mystery that goes well beyond the identity of Wellington’s murderer. More importantly, the ensuing consequences of this become Christopher’s crucible, as he becomes more familiarized with the bravery and academic feats he is capable of.
In addition to the aforementioned characters, his parents Ed and Judy Boone, Mrs. Alexander (another neighbor), Mrs. Gascoyne (headmistress), and more, play pivotal roles in supplementing Christopher’s personal journey and narrative of this National Theatre production, which is fabulously directed by Marianne Elliott. The scenic, lighting, video, music, and sound design – carried out with wonderful precision by Bunny Christie, Paule Constable, Finn Ross, Adrian Sutton, and Ian Dickinson of Autograph, respectively – is a technologically miraculous LED-laden “Matrix” box with high-powered Panasonic projectors along the stage floor and walls. The set is used as ideally as it can be, underscoring the over-stimulation that Christopher feels, including his frantic agony and his moments of clarion epiphanies and enthusiasm. These fluctuating emotions are intermixed within a medium that not only allows us to empathize with how Christopher’s brain works, but also be in awe of what he can and does accomplish.
Adam Langdon, a 2015 Juilliard Drama graduate, does a spectacular job of portraying Christopher (Benjamin Wheelwright is scheduled to play him on Saturday and Sunday matinees). Langdon brings a sensibility and humanity to the role, while also demonstrating Christopher’s internal struggles and dilemmas with an indefatigable energy, which, at one point, is materialized with him literally walking on the walls – a credit to choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly. Not to mention, Landon speaks and shouts with a high-pitched British accent that might become vocally tiring for some, but he never fatigues nor skimps on his diction. Impressively, he is always on stage during both acts – without a single water break – and is in prime position for every scene change, particularly the frenetic-moving and unforgettable train station sequence in Act II. Seemingly, Langdon becomes paradoxically more energized with each passing minute, even as he manages to build an entire train set in between very brief lulls when isn’t speaking, as he sprints back and forth on stage to retrieve the various pieces from designated side-wall panels.
Essentially, what makes Langdon’s performance so memorable isn’t necessarily because he can invariably convey the traits of one who is autistic, or even draw perfect circles on stage, but the fact that he presents his persona in such a way that is poignantly evocative and funny. For instance, Christopher is often very literal in his approach to externalities, but there is an innocent charm about how he imparts his thought processes that endear us to him. Specifically, the manner in which Langdon’s Christopher explains to Reverend Peters (played by Geoffrey Wade) how it would be scientifically impossible for heaven to exist on the other side of a light-engulfing black hole, or how he muses about rain drops unifying people because it can include evaporated-to-condensed water from all over the globe, re-shapes our perceptions about our surroundings.
Of course, as in any production, the lead is only as good as the other actors whom he or she plays off of. In this case, Langdon has the best of the best to work with. These supporting actors embolden the character choices Langdon makes, allowing for a suspenseful show that never loses its authenticity. Maria Elena Ramirez, for example, is very comforting as Siobhan, the teacher who wholeheartedly believes in Christopher. Ramirez’s Siobhan is heartfelt, simpatico, and becomes the muse by which Christopher draws much of his courage from.
Moreover, Felicity Jones Latta is terrific as Christopher’s mother, Judy, who, despite being frayed by the adversities of her own struggles as a wife and parent, is resiliently committed to her son. Gene Gillette, too, as Christopher’s father, Ed, is moving as a man coming to terms with the rigors of his life, and the stress of trying to understand a son, who as much as he loves, can be unpredictably erratic at times. Together, as Christopher’s parents, Gillette and Latta are both compellingly emotive in their persistence to make prudent decisions and do right by their son, even in the wake of errors in judgment in their characters’ past.
Standouts of the ensemble include Amelia White – the heartwarmingly gracious neighbor who treats and accepts Christopher like her very own grandson; Kathy McCafferty, who is great as Mrs. Shears, but especially hilarious as the cynical and reluctantly helpful Mrs. Gascoyne; and Geoffrey Wade, who is engagingly likable as not only Reverend Peters, but the London policeman who is “too old” to be in law enforcement.
Needless to say, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” earns the distinction for being one of the most recommended shows of the year. Running for two hours and thirty minutes (including intermission), this ambitious play keeps us riveted for the entire duration, and, more significantly, impresses upon us what it would be like to live in Christopher’s mind for a few hours, let alone an entire lifetime. And, where this production excels even more so is that it humanizes Christopher, and autism in general, as we never feel pity even once, but rather the opposite — wonder. We learn to feel the same astonishment about Christopher as he does the world around him.
For more information about “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit: