NEW YORK (AP) — A boy reaches out to pet a neighbor's dog. It sounds so cozy, except the dog onstage that begins the Broadway production of the National Theatre's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" has just been murdered with a giant garden pitchfork.
Aside from that grisly initial image, the New York production of the multiple Olivier Award-winner that opened Sunday night at the Barrymore Theatre evolves into a charming, intricately choreographed and dynamic theatrical experience.
The play is based on Simon's Stephens' adaptation of Mark Haddon's best-selling, 2003 novel; both look at the world through the eyes of a smart yet very challenged teenager with an unspecified condition very like Asperger's syndrome.
Christopher Boone, (a wondrous, and very physical performance by Alex Sharp, making his professional theater debut), is a math genius, but finds navigating emotions and practical details of daily life to be very stressful. Christopher's true savior, as far as dealing with daily challenges and being inspired to think beyond his limitations, is his exceptionally devoted teacher, Siobhan. She's given a spirited and luminous personality by Francesca Faridany, often bathed in golden light befitting a guardian angel.
He's also learned life skills and some coping mechanisms with the generally patient help of his parents, Ed (a gruff Ian Barford), and now-absent mother, Judy (Enid Graham, warm and loving). Christopher really challenges his abilities when he vows to solve the murder of his neighbor's dog, and to write a book about doing it, too. But as he trudges through his investigation, he discovers some major family secrets that rock his world.
Director Marianne Elliott stages a swirling, beautifully kaleidoscopic series of scenes, contrasting with the background of a giant, black-and-white grid representing the complete order that Christopher needs. When Elliott's kinetic vision and Bunny Christie's dazzling technological design — alternately playful and alarming — combine, the orderly grid explodes with fantastical projections including constellations, outer space, complicated city maps and terrifying escalators.
Slashes of lighting and atmospheric sound amplify the terrors lurking in Christopher's perception of the world around him. Yet whimsical touches also abound, including a live pet rat and a magical train set that expands to represent all of London.
Sharp's appealing performance is replete with some of the personality quirks, expressions and movements associated with Asperger's. Most painful to Christopher's parents is his dislike of being touched, and his easily-roused disorientation, which comes into play in some harrowing scenes with his parents, can lead him to perform an activity he matter-of-factly describes in his book as "doing moaning and groaning."
The relentlessly active ensemble flows on and off stage, marching in lockstep while carrying Christopher overhead, or lounging around contributing bits of dialogue or helping move props. They ably represent disorderly crowds at London railway and subway stations that horrify Christopher.
Kudos to choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and dance captain/ensemble member Tim Wright, for keeping the frenetic pace in order. There are quiet moments as well, in Christopher's home with his father, flashbacks showing his mother in happier times, and especially during his interactions with Faridany.
The most tragic aspect of the story, aside from Judy and Ed's separation due to the stress of caring for Christopher, is really Christopher's potential limitations as an adult. Maybe he's not going to fulfill his dream of living alone while attending college and later becoming an astronaut, but the way his teenage adventures are burnished by this dazzling production leaves the audience feeling inspired and hopeful.
The National's 2013 London production of "Curious Incident" was a hit until the Apollo Theatre's roof collapsed during a performance and ended the run.