In an evening of remarkable moments, two stand out the morning after opening night of the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Orpheum. The first is when our adolescent hero Christopher (Adam Langdon) is showered with scores of unopened letters from a mother he’s learned to live without; the second is when the same young man moors himself in mathematical sequences of numbers, reciting patterns that spin above his head in bright spiraling light.
Because in a show that embraces such digital, almost binary textures, Curious Incident manages to beat with an analog heart; it’s a tricky balance that accounts for its satisfying and moving impact. Employing a gridded cubical set, loud staccato noises, and props that materialize out of nowhere as though from a Star Trek replicator, we’re very much in the territory of The Matrix at times—until wrenching emotions and the impossibilities of domestic life intrude with the textures of (imagined) faded carpets and kitchen aromas.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, Curious Incident has claimed an embarrassment of awards in America and England and packed houses in the years since its 2012 debut. It’s not an intuitive hit: the story follows Christopher, who is intellectually brilliant and deeply autistic, on an elliptical detective quest that encompasses his fraught relationships with a well-meaning father (Gene Gillette, heartbreakingly flawed and earnest) and absent mother (Felicity Jones Latta, in a performance that suggests there’s an entire parallel play about her character in an imaginary drawer somewhere) through teenaged angst rendered more poignant by his own inability to emotionally connect with, or at times comprehend, the world around him.
Langdon does little short of a stunning job depicting the inner turmoil of a character incapable of conventional emotional expression. Trembling with tension, his voice rising to shouted satisfaction when he connects mathematical or celestial absolutes to our earthbound realities, his Christopher emerges as a profound metaphor for the frightened, alienated soul within each of us. When he journeys alone from his town to London in a dogged, confused odyssey, with roaring chaotic sound and actors throwing him about acrobatically in strobes of light, technical abstraction seems to connect with our own primal search for home, for comfort and meaning.
It’s also completely entertaining, full of sly little laughs and a book-within-the-play conceit that manages to work on the strength of a quick tempo, deft acting, and a surging hunt for truth that ends with the ambiguity of reality. It’s as though a digital simulation was indeed pierced by the anachronism of the handwritten letter: hard-edged but heartfelt, brilliant but restless. It’s easy to see what all the fuss has been about.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Orpheum Theatre through December 4. More info and tickets here.