The first of many eye-popping images in the Oct. 5 night-time was the corpse of Wellington, lying center stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with a garden fork sticking out of his gullet. Wellington was an irretrievable Golden Retriever, man's best friend and, certainly, the best friend of Christopher Boone—"15 years, three months and two days old," by his count—at the time of the murder. He's determined to investigate the case and bring the villain to justice, like his idol, Sherlock Holmes.
In the admittedly limited field of dog murders (frankly, only Hitchcock's "Rear Window" comes to mind), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a real beaut—first as a 2003 mystery novel by Mark Haddon and now as a new Broadway thriller by Simon Stephens. True to the genre in its eccentric way, the title comes from a quote of Sherlock's in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1892 short story, "Silver Blaze."
A mathematic whiz-kid whose social and emotional conditions suggest he falls on the autism spectrum, Christopher sprints from additions to subtractions to elementary deductions in nothing flat, coming up with the guilty party before intermission, but this opens up a darker unknown for the lad, who spends the second act solving for X, or at least resolving.
What literature and the alphabet are to Matilda, math and numbers are to Christopher. Both shows, which elaborately depict the fanciful private worlds of brainy British tykes, are tied for the greatest number of Olivier Awards (seven). "But Matilda's a musical so that doesn't count," cracked Stephens (kidding, of course). Neither property lent itself to easy adaptation to the stage, but he seems to have done the heavier lifting. "I think, like all adaptations, there were real difficulties and real joys about it—and quite often, like many things in life, the difficulties and the joys come from the same place, actually. What's extraordinary about the book is the remarkable nature of Christopher Boone's mind. When you read the book, you really read it with a sense of wonder at the way this boy thinks about the world.
"The book is written entirely from his point of view. It's actually written as though it's a book he was writing for a school project, so it's completely first-person. You can't do that on stage. The problem with theatre is, it's not about the way people think. Theatre is about the things they do to each other. Theatre is about behavior. So the challenge of the adaptation was really to work through the novel and find not what Christopher thought or felt but what he did—to build a narrative skeleton around what he did and to use that as a way to release his remarkable imagination."
The malady that grips the boy is not identified. "I don't really ever talk about Christopher in terms of his illness or his condition," admitted Stephens. "It's never diagnosed in the book. I think the best way of talking about Christopher is the way Christopher talks about himself. He's a 15-year-old mathematical genius with behavioral difficulties. Any other label other than that is misleading and unhelpful. There's no point in thinking about any kind of condition. He has just got an incredible brain, a remarkable mind and a couple of behavioral difficulties."
Stephens, who has another play about troubled youth on the immediate horizon (Punk Rock, which MCC will play at the Lortel Oct. 29-Dec. 7), and Haddon attended the play's after-party, held at URBO, a sprawling new venue at Eighth and 42nd Street. Both were asked if they'd envisioned the story the way it appeared on stage.
First, the novelist: "I never visualized the book because I was trying to see it through Christopher's eyes metaphorically. I wrote a book from the inside so that other people could read it and have their own pictures. Rather than imagining and then describing it, I tried to imagine a state of mind and make it work, so there's a lot of space in the book. A lot of readers finish the book with the impression they had written it themselves. There's no mention of what Christopher looks like in the book. People have a quite strong idea what he looks like, but that's their own idea."
Then, the playwright: "The whole spirit of writing the script was really inspired by the spirit of the book. If you read the play, there are few stage directions. That was a deliberate thing because, in theatre, my favorite thing is the relationship between the playwright and the director. That relationship works best if the actors don't slavishly try to recapture something a playwright imagined. When they're creative and working together, they try to integrate their own ideas. The production is immensely creative and acted with commitment—that's exactly what I envisioned."
Haddon admitted he was as moved by the Broadway production as he was with the one in London. "What's extraordinary is that it moves me every time, and I still don't quite understand why. There's a moment every time. When the frantic stuff starts, when Christopher comes in and they mime the household objects, he wipes his feet on an imaginary doormat. For some reason, something just rises in my chest."
"You know what it is?" Stephens shot back quickly, like a knee-jerk reaction. "You often say you're quite bashful about being moved by ideas that happen to be your own. You're not moved by your own ideas. You're moved by the openness of actors and artistic teams to work together to crystalize something you've imagined. It is the collaborative spirit that is moving. That's what moves me all the time."
Given the aggressively dazzling rendering of the piece, it almost could only be directed by Marianne Elliott, an English Diane Paulus in terms of vaulting visualizations. But, truth to tell, it was an easy win for the co-director of War Horse.
"Marianne's one of my oldest friends," Stephens confessed. "I've known her 17 years. I'm the godfather to her daughter. She always thinks I gave her the script as a favor to read because she's my mate, but I knew she wouldn't be able to resist it. It was right up her street. I dangled it in front of her and knew, by the end of it, she'd not allow any other director to direct it. I knew her well. That's what happened."
Incredibly, the first official reincarnation of Curious Incident was in the round in the smallest theatre at the National, the Cottlesloe, and it was there that it was taped for National Theatre Live. Unfortunately, even Elliott conceded, "The camera couldn't really capture all of the projections." The play didn't take on its spectacular aura until it was adjusted to proscenium staging. "After we realized that we had a theme on the set—lots of magic boxes out of which things came—we realized that the whole set behind the proscenium arch could be a box, and the box was his brain."
How did she visualize his world? "Slowly really, week by week by week. We were working with a designer on the text, trying to imagine how we could make the audience viscerally feel and see things the way Christopher sees them. There are some indications in the book. When he has a nervous breakdown, he said his brain is like a machine or a computer, so I thought, 'Well, it's going to be a really beautiful computer on stage—something Apple would be proud of.' When he has a breakdown, he says it's like when the computer goes down, and so that's what we visualized." The cast and crew are all American, save for the creative team she brought over from the U.K. (the projectionist, the lighting designer, the composer, the two movement directors). "We all worked together so cohesively, like a little team. Everything works together rather than it be one person's vision. That's hard to do."
Choreographer Steven Hoggett, who has made big, conspicuous moves on Broadway and Off, of late (Once, The Glass Menagerie, What's It All About?), and Scott Graham, also of Frantic Assembly, set the show in motion two years ago and merely repeated the chore for this shore now. "The pair of us created a physical language for this autistic brain," he explained. "That was the idea, the challenge, so we're happy."
London-born 25 years ago, Alex Sharp makes his make-or-break Broadway debut in the critical and complex role of Christopher. Ten years older than the character he's playing, he was cast in the role two months before he gradated from Juilliard so, technically, he is The Actor Who Has Never Known a Moment of Unemployment.
The role has kept him too busy to appreciate the distinction. "I can intellectually, from an outside point of view, I can see what a heavy role it is, but I don't really think about that. It's my job just to be in it and not question it and live as him.
"Actually, I think he's relatable. When I first read the book, the character is kinda other-worldly the way he functions. He doesn't like to be touched. He doesn't like the color yellow or the color brown. If he has to deal with it too much, he might not talk to someone for a week. His behavior problems were how it was described to me.
"I spent a lot of time at home, on my own, dropping into character, spending time as him, so when I became the character for the play I could fluently move through it without dropping in and out. It's quite hard when you're transforming. When you're trying to become someone else, one of the hardest things I think about is being able to do it consistently over two-and-a-half hours. It's draining, but it's invigorating." If anyone in the show has to deal with more nonstop verbiage than he, it's Francesca Faridany, who plays his teacher and has the arduous job of reading his "school paper" (i.e., the script proper). "There's so much going on at the same time that I'm speaking, so it was a little hair-raising at the beginning to navigate that and learn it and get everything about it—and then you realize what you're a part of." Her character, Siobhan, is one of the few (two, tops) sympathetic people in Christopher's life. "She's the one who understands," said Faridany. "She 'gets him,' and she translates that. You have me as a great bridge between the book basically and Christopher's mind and the audience. It's a great thing Simon came up with. My character's just mentioned a few times in the book as the person who gives him the tools he needs, but she's nowhere near as rounded a character as Simon made her."
Christopher's other sympathetic comrade is a matronly neighbor, played by the inestimable Helen Carey. "I fell in love with this character when I read the play because she moves Christopher along more than just one sentence. She just wants to talk to him, and she just assumes that he wants to talk and he finds himself saying, 'I like computers, and I like my pet rat, and I like outer space.' And this is the first time you hear him expand a little bit. It moves the story along and he gains confidence in doing what he sets out to do. Certainly, theirs is a wonderful relationship."
The actress admitted she didn't have any idea of the spectacle effects she'd be negotiating, but the director made it easy for her. "Nobody had any idea going into it, but Marianne has such a wonderful reputation. If anyone says to me in the future, 'Oh, so-and-so is a perfectionist,' I'll say, 'You haven't met Marianne Elliott, have you?' She is the consummate perfectionist and does it with grace and humor."
"The spectacle of it is really remarkable," seconded Ian Barford, who scores as Christopher's conflicted but earnest dad. "So, too, is the narrative—the family dynamics and all. Very seldom do you see a play that has both of those qualities."
Enid Graham, who plays his wife, agreed this was the advanced course of Hitting Your Mark. "Yes, it's very challenging. We definitely did have to learn a new kind of physical vocabulary with the show—a lot of the physical tricks, the acrobatic tricks that people do—but then also just the precision of the show. It took a while.
"This is a great part for any actress, but, if you're a mom, it's even better because there are so many themes about parenting and motherhood that speak to me."
Two of her three sons, corralled by her real-life husband (actor Robert Sella), were catching Mommy on Broadway for the first time. "It was really exciting to bring them here tonight," she contended. "I don't think they have seen me before on Broadway because almost everything I've been in since they've been alive—they've been either babies or it was wildly inappropriate. This was a good match, I think." Also attending: The Last Ship's Joe Mantello; frolicking and first-nighting before his Honeymoon in Vegas: Tony Danza; director Rob Ashford and Steven Pasquale making plans to meet in March for Carousel at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; playwright John Patrick Shanley preparing the screenplay for his recent Outside Mullingar; Jessica Hecht, doing "Person of Interest" and poised to announce a Broadway return this winter; playwright John Guare, beaming over what the NYU kids did with Free Man of Color ("They gave my play back to me!"); Randy Skinner bracing to: 1) helm his 11th White Christmas tour, 2) choreograph the New York Philharmonic Show Boat Nov. 5-8 for a PBS replay later, and 3) choreograph City Center's Encores! edition of Lady Be Good in February.
And: Keith Nobbs; Geoffrey Arenad, Remy Auberjonois, Erich Bergen, Tyne Daly and Burton Curtis, Danielle Brooks, Kim Cattrall, Edie Falco, Ramona Singer, Lucy Liu, Lorin Latarro, Chad Kimball, Mark Kaufman and Stacey Haufman and Mary Karr.