If “The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time” were not such terrific theater it would be worth going to see in order to understand what the world looks like through the eyes of an adolescent with Asperger’s, the high functioning end of the Autism spectrum. But forget about its being informative and dead-on in capturing the look and feel of the syndrome both from the inside and from the outside, “the Dog in the Night-time” is some of the most creative theater in a long time and pure entertainment.
Having seen it in New York, where it had garnered five Tonys, I feared what would happen when it traveled to the cavernous space of the Ahmanson. Not to worry. Although the miked voices and long distance sight lines are all a cost to the intimacy, the writing, direction, acting, and scenic design are so powerful that little is lost.
Christopher Boone (Adam Langdon) is a 15 year old living alone with his dad. His mother, apparently, died two years ago. Now the dog across the street, Wellington, is lying dead on the lawn, killed “by a garden fork.” Like others on the autistic spectrum, Christopher has easier relationships with animals than people. He loves reading Sherlock Holmes and is obsessed, a la Holmes, with the mission of solving the mystery: who killed Wellington? Knowing Christopher, and knowing much more, his father, Ed (Gene Gillette) tries to instruct Christopher not to poke into other people’s business. To no avail. One of the defining aspects of the Autism spectrum is the inability to connect with other people. Touching is feared and the closest thing to intimacy is when Christopher allows someone to raise his right hand and lets their palms touch. Few are granted that privilege. He has a mind full of advanced scientific concepts, he but lacks the social skills of a typical three year old.
Lest this seem like a text book description, let me put your mind at rest. From the creative set design, an eye grabbing mixture of high tech abstraction, to the boyish enthusiasm of a 15 year old with a mixture of naïveté and obsession, hearts can ache with empathy for how difficult life will likely be for him and the frustrations of a parent raising such a bright kid with such obvious deficiencies. These children are usually so smart, so obsessed, yet so obtuse when it comes to social cues. It males for riveting theater.
We watch as Christopher devotes himself to solving the mystery, then to solving another mystery he uncovers in the process. This, in turn, leads to emotions he cannot handle and an adventure for which he is ill-equipped. His gifted teacher, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) skillfully channels the boy into writing a book about his quest, forming the story for this play. It is a story that takes two and a half hours to tell, but well worth it. Word to the wise: do not leave just because people start to clap.
While severe autism is clearly disabling, many with Asperger’s prosper in science and technological environments with low social demands. Silicon Valley is famously populated with them. This morning’s news had a story about a 10 year old with Asperger’s whose passion was dinosaurs. At the British Museum he was distressed by the mislabeling of an exhibit. He parents said, ‘it’s the British Museum, they must have it right.’ The child insisted; wrote to the curator, who investigated; who then wrote back: indeed the child was right and he hoped that the boy would become a paleontologist – a perfect field for someone with his diagnosis.
It is hard to know whom to credit most in this pitch perfect production. Marianne Elliott’s direction has brought together a talented, energetic, and balanced cast on a set that is like a separate character in the drama. Too bad if you missed it on Broadway, but that is no excuse for missing it at the Ahmanson.