'Curious Incident' at the Academy: The miracle of understanding

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Adam Langdon as Christopher Boone and the touring production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

If there was ever a time to appreciate a great novel by attending an equally compelling dramatization, this is it.

A touring production of playwright Simon Stephens’ Tony-winning hit that took the National Theatre and Broadway by storm, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through Sunday, March 5, at the Academy of Music. A timely, powerful drama about the miracle of making a truly human connection to other people, it's based on British author Mark Haddon’s extraordinary 2003 novel of the same name. Haddon’s novel also happens to be this year’s selection for the citywide literary program One Book One Philadelphia

There’s something of the impossible about Christopher Boone, the mysterious 15-year-old boy at the heart of Incident. A unique literary creation, he’s an extreme example of otherness whose oblique personality challenges us to reexamine how easily we are seduced by the temptation to reject, if not demonize, difference.

Incident opens with an unbearable bedlam of flashing lights, chaotic video projections, and cacophonous noise – a painful assault that makes you sit up and pay attention.

As we quickly learn, we have been thrust body and soul into Christopher’s subjectivity, his mind-space, his sometimes terrifying experience of the world around him.

The action begins with Christopher’s discovery of his neighbor’s dog Wellington, who lies dead on center stage, a pitchfork sunk deep into his torso. The drama that unfolds is structured around Christopher’s attempts to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes and discover who killed the beloved pet. The journey will test him to the limits of his incomplete, halting understanding of how the human world fits together — and it will thrust him into an alien, uncharted emotional territory. Eventually, he exposes a series of lies that have sustained his relationship with his father, Ed (played to perfection by experienced stage and TV actor Gene Gillette).

In a parallel storyline, Christopher records his investigation with exquisite, mind-blowing detail in a journal he writes with encouragement from his favorite teacher, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez).

Why is Christopher so difficult to understand? While both Haddon’s novel and the play take pains never to reduce Christopher to a set of symptoms or a diagnosis, it’s clear the boy shares some of the traits popularly associated with some forms of autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

He has trouble understanding and interpreting nonverbal cues, seems unable to communicate emotions, and is possessed of a brilliant if tightly structured and utterly inflexible logical mind. A mathematical prodigy, he’s far more comfortable with numbers than with people.

Touch him – if only for a fraction of a second – and the physical contact will send him into paroxysms of frustrated fear, rage, repulsion, and confusion. When things become unbearable, which seems to be often, he shuts down. He becomes a closed fist, an impossible person.

The role is incredibly demanding, which is perhaps why it’s handled by two different actors who take over on alternate nights. Adam Langdon took the stage when I was there on opening night. He switches with Benjamin Wheelwright, who has played the role on Broadway. 

A 2015 Juilliard graduate, Langdon has an uncanny ability to use his body to externalize Christopher’s mental states. Onstage for the play’s entire  two hours and 40 minutes, Langdon is agile, effortlessly performing director Marianne Elliott’s expressionist choreography, jumping out of his skin and into the arms of various ensemble players or bounding from one end of the stage to the other and up the side of a wall, Spider-Man style.

While he’s never less than mesmerizing, I felt Langdon was less successful when it came to the dialogue. His cadences were over-stylized, and he had a tendency to reduce Christopher’s voice to that of a much younger child. These problems are minor and easily overlooked given the overall effect of Langdon’s performance.

Gillette (War Horse National Tour; Elementary and Person of Interest on TV) dominates the small supporting cast, which includes Felicity Jones Latta (Metamorphoses at Circle in the Square) as Christopher’s mom, Judy. Gillette turns in a strong, tumultuous performance as a single father whose devotion to Christopher has come at a high price. Prone to fits of anger, aggrieved by his wife’s absence, and utterly, inconsolably lonely, he manages to remain patient with his son only by violently and dangerously repressing his own seething emotions.

Brilliantly staged by Elliott with a minimalist rigor that somehow also manages to be spectacular, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time manages, with grace and power, the doubly impossible feat of putting us directly in contact with human difference, with otherness. The first impossibility — the empathetic understanding of the other — is accomplished daily by great novelists, playwrights, directors, and actors. We’ve become so used to it that we forget its miraculous nature. 

But what makes Incident special is that it places us in the skin of this singular personality, a boy whose psychological makeup so spectacularly resists empathy. It’s easy enough to be fascinated by Christopher Boone. He’s such a wonderful specimen. Much more difficult and miraculous is having an aesthetic encounter that enables us to love him.


Theater

The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time. Through Sunday, March 5, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $82-$634.
Information: 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.

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