The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, now showing at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s November Theatre, is a curious case of a potentially good play being marred by a confusing set design. I saw it on opening night at Virginia Rep’s November Theater, and while appreciating the refreshing perspective and talented acting, some distracting directorial choices kept it from sticking the landing.
The play, which was adapted from a 2003 novel by Mark Haddon that got quite a bit of attention at the time of its release, takes the form of a mystery. However, both the problem presented and the detective solving it are far from the Sherlock Holmes stories that inspired its title..
Christopher, a fifteen-year-old autistic high school student, stands accused of killing his neighbor’s dog. In order to clear his name, he takes it upon himself to find the true killer, having no idea what he will learn about himself and his life in the process.
The play begins with a minimalist set, in which various actors are used as set pieces, standing in for such objects as a refrigerator, microwave, and clothes rack. The way the actors reacted to these “inanimate objects” came off as confusing and misleading throughout the performance. Despite how barren my fridge usually is, I don’t typically scowl at it.
The award-winning version of this play, originally performed at the Royal National Theatre in London, used special suits and effects to help these characters blend into the background; a vale or a shroud to distort their faces would have helped the illusion. As director (and Virginia Rep Artistic Director) Nathaniel Shaw staged it, though, it felt like being in a fever dream, where people from the neighborhood manifested themselves as objects in the house. This might be the effect they were going for, but a subtler take on it would have made it less jarring.
Nonetheless, the play is beautifully choreographed. Shaw has a lauded background in the dance world, and it shows throughout the play. There is a brilliant moment in the first act in which Christopher, played by recent Chicago transplant Michael Manocchio, discovers that his father has told him a very serious lie. Christopher’s inner turmoil is beautifully represented with chaotic movement and sounds on stage, and is very well acted.
In another scene, Christopher’s mom (Laine Satterfield), who was absent for the first half of the first act, is finally revealed on stage. She enters cast in splendor and glory, like the angel in Tony Kushner’s classic, Angels in America. Cast in a golden hue, she seems more than just a mother, more like a child might imagine his mom; as a transcendent angel radiating power and beauty. It was a great use of imagery and movement to show the audience how the scene looked through Christopher’s eyes.
The play focuses less on the dog than the title would lead you to believe, instead centering on domestic difficulties and the complicating issue of Christopher’s autism. It succeeds in providing its audience with an autistic child’s perspective on the world. Christopher doesn’t like to be touched or to look people in the eyes. Rather, he prefers being left to his own thoughts. He also has a tremendous ability for math, which he sees as his one opportunity to achieve the autonomy he so desperately desires.. Manocchio does a great job getting the mannerisms and physicality right, but his physical appearance wasn’t entirely believable. In the play Christopher is referenced as a 15 year old boy; Manocchio looks well into his 30s, which distracted from the illusion that theater is supposed to provide.
Emelie Faith Thompson does a fantastic job as both Christopher’s teacher and as a physical manifestation of Christopher’s consciousness. At several points throughout the play, she dialogues with Christopher as a representation of his inner thought process. The conviction and veracity with which she speaks to defend and support Christopher is moving. Christopher’s dad, Ed, played by Joe Pabst, is also terrific. He walks a not-so-easy line of playing a dad who, despite his own demons, attempts to do his best for his son.
Also worth mentioning is Adam Valentine. He looks like a character from British sitcom The Inbetweeneers. A rough-looking British kid with a popped polo, the kind of who ruined Burberry for the upper-class, he does a great job of making you believe he is the kind of Englishman who would come up and ask you if he could get a smoke, bruv.
This brings me to another point of contention. I realize that Curious came out of England, but you shouldn’t do British accents if you can’t maintain the accent throughout the play. In fact, I thought the setting distracted from the story; it isn’t so much a story about England as it is about a family dynamic and Christopher’s effort to deal with a world he wants little do with.
All in all, the play didn’t feel fully realized to me. The actors had moments of greatness, but made frustrating decisions just as often. The choreography drew me in, but the set design took me out. Nevertheless, I found the opportunity to sit down and see the world from Christopher’s eyes to offer a fresh perspective — which is always nice to find.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs Wednesday through Sunday at VA Rep’s November Theater through Sunday, October 14. There will be two “sensory friendly” performances for people with autism on Friday, September 28 and Saturday, October 6. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased at varep.org.