Two theatre productions dominated Broadway’s Tony Awards in 2015 — the Best Musical, ” Fun Home,” and the Best Play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” By a lucky fluke of scheduling, touring road shows of both of them can be seen in Seattle this weekend.
I’ve already raved about “Fun Home,” which is playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre and now it’s time to give “Curious Incident,” which plays through Sunday at the Paramount, its due too. It’s a stunning theatrical adaptation of an internationally best-selling novel about a boy who has difficulties coping with the world.
Budding mathematical whiz kid, 15-year-old Christopher, finds most social interactions puzzling, sometimes even excruciating. He approaches life so “logically” that social niceties like small talk baffle him and even the most common “metaphoric” sayings make no sense to him. And although he intellectually understands the concept of lying, he professes to be incapable of it. He also can’t bear to be touched, even by his parents. The only physical affection he allows for is from his pet rat, Toby.
The only other animal in his life is a large neighbor’s dog named Wellington who, as the play opens, is laying dead on stage at Christopher’s feet.
The teenager decides he will use his analytical abilities to figure out who killed Wellington — much like his hero Sherlock Holmes does when he solves his cases. (The play’s title actually comes from a Sherlock Holmes short story) What Christopher discovers is more unsettling and more far-reaching than what he bargains for. How he copes with that information is his particular challenge.
What sets “Curious Incident” apart, however, is not so much its subject matter as its ingenious production design. The set consists primarily of a giant black box grid, inside of which all the actors perform. The stage walls look like graph paper squares and each of the squares is outlined by LED bulbs. These walls also serve as screens for frequent video projections of moving words, skittering images, line drawings, maps, and pulsing lights. These visuals are frequently married to musical rhythms and kinetic sounds, which periodically creates a kind of light-show ambiance.
Especially early on in the play, all this visual and aural razzle-dazzle threatens to overwhelm the rather modest plot. I found myself wondering if it was perhaps designed to compensate for what otherwise might seem a rather thin premise for a play.
But by the second act, it becomes clear the black-box graphics are meant to give us glimpses into the workings of the highly developed but also very particular mind of Christopher. All the straight lines and geometric shapes, the graphs and equations, the codified road maps and illustrations — these are how he sees and understands the world. We not only are witnessing but also experiencing what it feels like to be Christopher.
Ultimately, the razzle-dazzle gives way to the simply dazzling, and the play’s humanist heart beats clearly. We are all much more like Christopher than not.