Friday, December 09, 2016

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' Brilliantly Rewards One's Curiosity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 24

I see roughly 25 plays in a given year, not including another 30 or so musicals, some of which--such as Fun Home--match the dramaturgical heft of non-musical plays.

Whether new or old, dramatic, comedic or deftly blending humor and pathos, each play worth its salt offers not only a distinct storyline but a rather unique perspective, outlook, range of insights, etc.

Some chronicle people not often portrayed onstage, some devise particularly riveting scenarios & situations, some are structured non-linearly, some are especially novel in their use of language.

In other words, there are many ways that great plays can define themselves, and I've been immeasurably enriched by many of them, including 17 of the past 20 Tony Award winners for Best Play, dozens more nominees and hundreds of others.

But extremely rare is the piece of theater that reinvents what a play can be.

Certainly, the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls has reshaped how Shakespeare and other classics can feel, director Mary Zimmerman has done visionary work--most notably with Metamorphosis but also The White Snake and others--and I've enjoyed bold, brash shows by Chicago's Lookingglass and House Theatre troupes, among others.

In terms of truly cutting edge, groundbreaking and transformative theater, however, my definitive example until Wednesday night would have been War Horse.

I didn't see it until a U.S. National Tour brought the astonishing full-size horse puppets to Chicago in late 2012, but the play by Nick Stafford was adapted from a popular novel (by Michael Morpurgo), originated at England's National Theatre in London, became a huge, highly-awarded hit, ran on Broadway and won the Tony before crisscrossing America, presumably without much loss in the brilliance of its production.

And now, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has followed much the same path--and wowed me in a similar way.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from a popular but heretofore unknown-to-me 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, Curious Incident--as many abbreviate the title and I will henceforth--is directed by Marianne Elliott, not so incidentally the co-director of War Horse (at National Theatre and on Broadway, though not in Chicago).

Upon taking one's seat, the stage seen--i.e. no curtain--resembles graph paper, although reversed out to be white on black, with this comprising the floor, backdrop and side walls.

And, oh yeah, there's a dead dog in the middle of the floor.

As the show begins, the dog is quickly removed, but a chalk outline remains for the duration. And we learn that Wellington--cruelly murdered with a pitchfork--had belonged to a neighbor of Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old British boy who has an autism spectrum disorder. (This seems to be the accepted way of referencing individuals afflicted by autism, Asberger's syndrome and/or related conditions; Christopher is never specifically labeled or diagnosed within the play.)

The role of Christopher earned Luke Treadaway and Alex Sharp top acting awards in London and New York, respectively, and I've read that Sharp was particularly wonderful.

On tour in Chicago, Adam Langdon primarily plays Christopher--the intensive role is filled by Benjamin Wheelwright at certain performances--and without any direct point of reference, whether to other actors or to people on the autism spectrum, I found him to be fantastic.

Even in being a bit challenged to hear everything from my seat in the last row of the cavernous Oriental Theatre--which isn't an ideal venue for Curious Incident despite the brilliantly modern set by Bunny Christie playing large for this rare touring play--I hung on every word Christopher says as he goes about trying to discover who killed the dog.

The show is far from a hard-boiled detective caper, and though I held Langdon's portrayal of Christopher in the highest regard, I don't know how true to life his depiction of a boy with genius-level mathematical ability, communication deficiencies and obsessive compulsions may be.

Narratively, I'm not sure the second act is even needed and the conclusion seemed a bit pat (perhaps I view doggycide as meriting greater punishment and ongoing recrimination than is meted out).

But in a way that's hard to describe in writing--which is why I've included a video below, from the Broadway run--the storyline isn't what fuels the magnificence of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

There are a number of noteworthy characters beyond Christopher, including his primary teacher (Maria Elena Ramirez), his father (Gene Gillette) and, well, let's just say a key woman in his life (Felicity Jones Latta).

And Stephens, whose Harper Regan I really liked in a Chicago storefront production at Steep Theater, is clearly an excellent writer. 

Yet along with the portrait of Christopher and the way he thinks, writes, deduces, perseveres, etc., what makes Curious Incident special is the masterful way it's staged.

Fueled by Paule Constable's lighting design and Finn Ross' video projections, doors open and close out of nowhere in Christie's seemingly simply yet deceptively complex set. In ways you really should see to believe, various interiors, exteriors, locales, maps, streets, cities and even subway trains are depicted with startling reality, despite their 2-dimensionality.

As such, there are so many "Holy F*ck!" moments in Curious Incident--thanks to visuals,  performances, emotions, ingenuity and more--that even with some imperfections, I would have to call it one of the most singular and amazing plays I've ever seen.

It was nice to see the Oriental's balcony nearly full on the show's second night in Chicago, and I'm assuming there were a lot of Broadway in Chicago subscribers thanks an especially well-sold season that included Hamilton.

But it looks you can find nosebleed weeknight seats for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time starting at just $22, plus better seats at nice discounts on HotTix and Goldstar.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, I obviously can't promise you'll love it. But I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything else quite like it.

Here's a video with some nice insights from some of the show's key creatives--including director Marianne Elliott--that should provide a better sense of what to expect. The clip was filmed for the Broadway run, so the lead actor (and rest of the cast) is different from Chicago, which supposedly is getting a full-octane version with just a few visual sacrifices. 

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