There's an old stage writer's maxim: “When in doubt, bring on the dog. If that doesn't work, bring on the kid.”
The pros responsible for the thoroughly thrilling, emotional joy-ride that is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2012, London premiere) take that antique adage and kick it into electrifying overdrive. Presented by BBVA Broadway at the Hobby, Simon Stephens's Tony Award-winner for Best Play (2015) may be the most satisfying, heartwarming drama in seasons.
When we enter the Hobby, there is a dog center-stage, but the big burly mutt is dead as a door nail, pierced by a garden fork. After a burst of Paule Constable's strobe light, accompanied by composer Adrian Sutton's electronic throb, there stands the kid, our teen hero, Christopher (Adam Langdon, twitchy, reedy, all nerve endings), petting dead dog Wellington, sort of disconsolate, but sort of not. Definitely out of sorts.
Did he kill the dog? That's just the first of many mysteries to be unraveled in this exhilarating award-winning adaptation (Tonys, Oliviers, Drama Desks) of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel. This multi-faceted play unfolds on so many layers, it's like watching an origami master work backward. The play twists and unwinds upon itself, always fresh, always surprising. But it's not the harpooned dog that rivets our attention; it's the kid. Something's off about him.
The first clue is when the policeman, summoned by Wellington's owner, Christopher's neighbor Mrs. Shears, touches the boy to get him to stand up and answer questions. As if shocked by a taser, Christopher goes into meltdown, wailing and striking out at the unsuspecting cop. For you see, young Christopher suffers from a form of high-function autism, though the play doesn't specify his infliction.
Christopher will not be touched. He distrusts strangers, won't look anyone in the eye, longs to be alone, wants his own private, clean toilet. Any disruption in his normal routine sends him into heartbreaking paroxysms. Although he's a math savant, there's a particular, peculiar order to his universe, and he cannot function outside it. Life must be regimented, put into precise theorems, made tidy. Any deviation is deadly. His teacher Siobhan (a most empathetic Maria Elena Ramirez) connects only so far, but it's Dad (gruff, utterly sympathetic Gene Gillette) who can calm him – and touch him – by extending his hand, palm facing Christopher's. It lasts only a moment, until Christopher draws back as if burned, but the momentary human contact acts like a benediction.
The bliss doesn't last long before Christopher, against his dad's adamant command, goes off to solve the mystery of Wellington's killer. The answer is revealed at the end of Act I, but the play's ethereal mysteries continue to deepen. There's so much yet to know. Life hits you in waves.
Soon, Christopher is off to London by himself with his pet rat, Toby, beset by sensory overload at every quotidian hassle we would take for granted: going through a turnstile, buying a train ticket, maneuvering through a crowded subway, reading a map. When he is deluged by the barrage of flashing advertisements, Christopher is almost crushed by the descending light grid. All this is sumptuously conjured by Ian Dickinson's expressionistic sound design, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett's propulsive choreography and, best of all, Bunny Christie's techno set design that's anchored by an enveloping graph-paper grid that constantly morphs into walkways, star maps and, around the proscenium, lucite cubes that double as TV set, microwave oven and even aquarium.
Director Marianne Elliott, lauded for her superb work on War Horse, amazes once again with her dexterous hand and varied pace. There's a musical quality to her work, a theatrical ebb and flow that matches Christopher's quicksilver moods. It's slowly revealed that what we're watching is Christopher's diary made into a play and performed at his school. There's much theater magic afoot in this production.
Christopher loves science and math but longs to be an astronaut. He wants to be in space, alone, where there is utter peace and he can communicate with NASA “strangers” through monitors as if it's a video game. In the play's most evocative scene, he floats through his space dream, lifted by unseen hands. He walks on the walls, tumbles backward weightless, soars and careens, then curls up like an embryo in his capsule. He's safe and himself. It's one of the most perfectly poetic and stirring images of bliss imaginable. Incident is rife with such sequences.
If you find life unbearably difficult, insufferably annoying, terribly confusing, then Christopher Boone's journey in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time might be your salve. When all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, he's not saved, cured or guaranteed the wishes he most desires, but still he innocently asks, “I can do these things...Does that mean I can do anything?” Christopher's question goes unanswered. Just like life.
(P.S.: Stay until after the curtain call. The payoff to a passing reference in Christopher's play-within-a-play is stirring tribute to his indomitable spirit. And you might learn a thing or two about right triangles.)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. 7:30 p.m. January 25 and 26; 8 p.m. January 27; 2 and 8 p.m. January 28; 2 and 7:30 p.m. January 29. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 800-952-6560 or 713-315-2525 or visit houston.broadway.com. $30 to $120. (Benjamin Wheelwright portrays Christopher on Thursday, January 26; Saturday matinee, January 28; and Sunday evening, January 29.)