By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Author Mark Haddon created a best-selling novel 20 years ago in Great Britain with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a book whose narrator is a 15-year-old savant boy with autism. The simple premise of the work is to transport the reader into the imagination of an autistic child as we join him on a journey of self-discovery.
Simon Stephens adapted the work for the stage by the Royal National Theatre and it was met with success both critically and at the box office. Following its transfer to the West End, the play received a then-record-tying seven Olivier Awards, including one for Best Play. Following the play’s opening on Broadway in 2014, it was cited as the Best Play by the Drama League, the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk and received a Best Play Tony Award and four others including Best Actor in a Play for autistic actor Alex Sharp in addition to Best Direction honor for Marianne Elliott and Best Scenic and Best Lighting designs.
The special effects created by those scenic and lighting designs left the audience with an ethereal and sensory experience as actors and objects flew into scenes or rose and dropped from trap doors. Stairways were created out of the dark nothingness of the stage and actors walked upon them seconds later. Projections were utilized to describe the mental processes going on in Christopher’s mind.
By the time The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time closed nearly two years after its opening at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre, the two biggest questions posed were: how could the special effects that dominated the production be duplicated and when would the work enjoy its regional premiere in New Orleans?
Don-Scott Cooper, the producing executive director at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, correctly determined this important work had to be seen in New Orleans sooner than later. With his hiring of Salvatore Mannino as director, he guaranteed that the essence of the Broadway production would be recreated on the much smaller stage, but with bold and innovative strokes that make this production as unique as a computer-generated prime number above 2 x 1022.
The all-important central character of Christopher is brilliantly and tenderly presented by Fernando Rivera, Jr. Anyone who has dealt with an autistic child knows how difficult communication can be due to the way in which they process the world around them. Christopher has developed coping mechanisms to enable him to navigate through any given day. He counts the numbers of red cars that pass him on his way to school to determine if it is going to be a super good day or not. He carries with him his Swiss Army knife so he feels safe. He doesn’t hug, but he will extend his fingers out to touch his parent’s extended hand. Rivera’s depiction is spot on and his performance is the glue that makes this work so compelling and riveting.
In Haddon’s book, Christopher’s voice is the narrator, while in Stephens’ play, the character of Siobhan, a mentor and supportive friend at his special school, reads from a journal Christopher has written. This creates a play within a play, where we learn of his actions and his intentions having already occurred.
As autism could be described as a form of sensory overload that makes simple tasks seem difficult or insurmountable, the inner machinations of Christopher’s thinking process are conveyed through projections of items he imagines or by a series of letters cascading against the backdrop of suspended triangles that form the backdrop of the stage. Nightlight Labs designed the scenic and video content for the show and the result is breathtaking.
Siobhan is played by Justice Hues, whose character gives emotional grounding to Christopher’s. While reading from the journal, Siobhan relates the past and oftentimes is depicted as having an important connection in the narrative. At other times Siobhan is looking backwards from the present and able to make comments about Christopher’s journey.
Indeed, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a journey – both literal and metaphysical – in which the 15-year-old mathematical genius investigates the world around him and determines answers to questions he imposes on himself.
The adults in his life, his father Ed (Nick Strauss) and his mother Judy (Diana E. H. Shortes), have not been role models as parents. While not clearly stated, the pressure of raising an autistic child in a working-class British town could be understood to be depressing and demanding. Having played Gooper and Mae in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this is the second time Strauss and Shortes have played on the Le Petit Stage and in both cases they were cast by Mannino as a married couple. This time, they are not committed to one another. Their only tenuous connection is through their care for their son.
Both parents express their love for Christopher, but it is a hardship for both of them. Strauss attempts to find some admirable qualities in Ed Boone, a man who allows his son to take the blame for his own actions early in the play. His shortcomings as a father are probably exacerbated by having to come to terms with the very shaky relationship he holds with Christopher and the fact that his son is incapable of lying and completely trusting in both of his parents. Strauss does manage to imbue his character with some redeeming qualities and we can sympathize that it is difficult for him to explain his motivations to a son who is naïve about such things.
As Judy Bloom, Shortes is both heart-rending and spellbinding. Her working class Swindon accent comes as authentically as do the feelings that pour forth from her when she meets Christopher after a long absence. Her disappearance has been covered up by her husband in a way that on face value seems unusually cruel, but is Ed’s quickest and easiest explanation and one that would not readily be questioned by Christopher.
Shortes’ scenes with Rivera are beautifully choreographed and speak volumes on her emotional attachment to her child. There is little doubt that her leaving Christopher was based on her assessment that it was the best she could do for him. Ryan Hayes adds his support in later scenes with her as her love interest, Roger Shears.
Other cast members include the remarkable Jen Pagan as Mrs. Alexander, the talented Erin Cessna as Mrs. Shears and both Kevin Wheately and Dylan Fuselier in their Le Petit Theatre debuts as a policeman and reverend, respectively. Most of the cast members contribute as voices in the ensemble of voices that dominate the scenes in which Christopher travels from his home to London.
At play’s end the resolution of who killed Wellington, the Shearses’ dog, is determined through Christopher in his role as an amateur sleuth. He achieves a certain level of independence through his actions and his ability to achieve anything he puts his mind to is affirmed.
The special effects are at times mind numbing, but so essential as to bring the audience into the inner workings of Christopher’s mind. This is a journey that requires the suspension of reality at times, but the payoff is a true appreciation of his intent and, ultimately, his greatest achievement is accomplished in his own mind.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2 and 1/2 hours including a 15-minute intermission) continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street, in New Orleans through June 4, 2023. For tickets click here or call 504-522-2081.