Call me reductive but if I were pitching a film version of Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-seller, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, the headline above would do the trick. The prestige British import of Broadway’s fall season, this fine heartbreaker of a show, adapted from the novel by Simon Stephens, arrives courtesy of the National Theatre and a phalanx of top Broadway producers, at the Barrymore Theatre sans stars, cunning score or much else — unless you’re looking for a rippingly human story performed with wit, elegance and and faith in the audience’s intelligence.
Human warmth probably won’t be your first response upon entering the theater. The stage is dressed like a giant sheet of graph paper extending across the floor. I thought I was looking at New York magazine’s Approval Matrix: Will the play be Highbrow Brilliant or Lowbrow Despicable? But when the lights come up on a dog cruelly dispatched via pitchfork and the teenage boy examining him, we know a mystery is afoot. And we know quickly that Christopher Boone (the uncommonly appealing newcomer Alex Sharp) is no ordinary young man. Call him autistic, or an idiot-savant (I don’t even know whether that term has become un-p.c.), he is endlessly curious, breathtakingly engaged and very, very special: Do not touch him; he can’t tolerate human contact, his sole concession touching palm-to-palm with his parents. Do not say to him the kinds of things adults often say to children just to shut them up; he will question you with the relentlessness of a four-year-old. Abandon figures of speech all who enter into his universe; he will take you literally and you’ll both end up bewildered. Metaphors need not apply.
Christopher is a math prodigy and he’s obssessed with patterns he’s often incapable of integrating, which is what may make you think of A Beautiful Mind. He may not be great at connecting words and meanings, but present him with a puzzle and he will persist until it is solved. The central puzzle is, who killed poor Wellington? A matter of some urgency since Christopher himself is the prime suspect after his owner, Mrs. Shears (Mercedes Herrero) comes upon him examining the canine corpse.
Marianne Elliott, who set a high bar with her earlier production of War Horse, another National Theatere transfer to New York, sets her modest troupe around the perimeter of Bunny Christie’s graphic set, which might have been a cliché were it not for its knockout visual realization of the comings and goings of input, data, emotion and happenstance buzzing around and through Christopher — yes, a damned metaphor, this set. His father (the empathic Ian Barford) has told him his absent mother (Enid Graham) has died of a heart attack. That becomes another mystery Christopher must solve. Aiding him through sheer compassion is his teacher Siobhan (Francesca Faridany, touchingly engaged), the character and relationship that may have you thinking of Billy Elliot.
The mystery of Wellington’s killer is solved by the time the first act curtain has come down, which is itself a clue that the curious incident is not really what this play is about. After the break, we will join Christopher on his coming-of-age journey to London.
What Stephens, Elliott and Christie (who also designed the tone-perfect costumes) do — along with Scott Graham and Stephen Hoggett’s seamless choreography, blazingly expressive lighting by Paule Constable, projections by Finn Ross and music by Adrian Sutton — is bring us inside the head of an exceptional outsider who is also unyieldingly one of us. Don’t think for a second this is an after-school special, though special The Curious Incident certainly is. It may in the end be too sentimental to qualify as highbrow — but it’s brilliant nonetheless.