We open on a grim scene: a dog, lying in a garden, dead and impaled. This is only the first mystery in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” an uplifting and tender play that had its world premiere in London in 2012. Since the play’s debut, it has thrilled audiences around the world, including theater-lovers in South Africa, Japan and Israel. The play won seven Olivier Awards during its West End run and five Tony Awards on Broadway. Now, Atlanta audiences can also enjoy “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the intimate Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points through Oct. 27.
Based on the novel by Mark Haddon, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” follows 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Brandon Michael Mayes) as he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, uncovers family secrets, ventures into the unknown and undertakes A-level maths. Christopher is an intelligent boy with “behavior problems,” likely savant syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. Unexpected and unwanted human touch provokes violent outbursts, screaming and thrashing from Christopher, and he will wet himself rather than use a shared toilet. Ed Boone (Christopher Hampton) strives to be a good father to Christopher, respecting his limits and fighting for his goals, but his anger and frustration strain their relationship.
Hampton portrays Ed with nuance and compassion, a crucial success as the relationship between Christopher and his father forms the emotional core of the play. The show soars in the moments of aching longing and gentleness, such as when Ed carefully helps Christopher change out of soiled clothes or when he lovingly and cautiously reaches out for Christopher’s hand.
Holmesian twists and the sharp script of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” enraptured the audience; one revelation even provoked an audible gasp from the crowd. With solid production value and stirring theatricality, this production is a good choice both for Broadway groupies or those who last saw live theater at a mandatory sixth-grade school assembly.
Rest assured, this isn’t your grandmother’s theater. The set, lighting design and directing choices of the show are strikingly modern. Eschewing traditional bulky and clumsy set pieces, a few moveable white blocks and a white backdrop with compartments and doorways create a canvas that lighting projections can transform from the serenity of outer space to the frantic bustle of London. While the pantomime is less precise and the stunts are more subdued in this production than the New York and London shows, there are moments that suggests why “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was nominated for the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Choreography. For example, the actors, almost like modern dancers, lift Christopher so he can soar among the stars, and through pantomime become furniture and appliances, including a washing machine and a wardrobe.
Sound and lighting design combine to give neurotypical audiences a taste of the overstimulation that burdens Christopher, which unfortunately makes this show inaccessible to people like Christopher with high sensory sensitivity. This directorial decision is in line with past productions, and while it may raise understanding and visibility, I hope the Horizon Theatre (or the Aurora Theatre, where this show will play in early 2020) considers including a special relaxed performance designed to be more broadly accessible, as the Piccadilly Theatre in London did earlier this year with the same play.
The show’s weaknesses are minor and easily forgivable. The fourth-wall breaks, play-within-a-play element and transitions between real and imagined characters are at times needlessly confusing or jarring in their abruptness. Tweaks to timing or staging might help the audience better understand what is real and what is not. Moreover, with only an eight-person cast, most actors play multiple characters. However, with only small costuming cues, keeping track of who’s who was occasionally a losing battle. While I understand that the actors are already, to varying degrees of success, affecting British accents, better distinguishing their characters’ voices could better clarify character switches.
Whether “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is completely unfamiliar to you or you have read the book and seen a past production of the play, I heartily recommend the Horizon’s production. I had the privilege of seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in London several years ago, and even with a much smaller production budget, this rendition proves a worthy successor to the West End show that swept the world. Even though Christopher’s experience may be foreign to some of us, the emotional core of his story remains universal as Christopher wrestles with how to forgive others, how to face his fears and how to achieve his dreams. With a strong cast, an innovative technical design and the affordability of local professional theater, the Horizon’s production successfully brings one of the best plays of this decade to our neighborhood in Atlanta.
When: Now through Oct. 27
Where: Horizon Theatre
Tickets: Available online but call the theater (404-584-7450) for $20 student tickets to any performance.
Special Note: As a co-production, this show will transfer to the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Ga., and run from Jan. 9 to Feb. 9.