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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 2 months ago

FST's 'Curious Incident' is a smart, original play with a self-informed lead

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'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' takes audiences on a journey of the mind at Florida Studio Theatre.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Simon Stephens’ “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is the mystery of the hour at Florida Studio Theatre. The play’s a mystery on several levels. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery. At its depths, it explores the mystery of the human mind. One in particular.

That mind belongs to Christopher, a teenager living with his father in a suburb of London. The murder victim is their neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Someone impaled him with a garden fork. When the crime is discovered, Christopher is immediately blamed. His unusual mind makes him the usual suspect. He’s special, in every sense. Christopher has total recall, eidetic memory and enjoys solving complicated equations in his head. But he also has some form of mental disability. (The play never spells it out, but he’s probably on the autism spectrum.) Christopher hates being touched, and can’t read facial clues or grasp metaphor.

The lad spends time in jail after punching a policeman who made the mistake of touching him. Christopher is cleared of the canine killing, but that’s not the end of it. He wants to solve the mystery for himself. His father (Todd Licea) tells him to drop it. Christopher doesn’t — and his dogged detective work ultimately uncovers the canine killer. That opens up a greater mystery. For Christopher, it hits very close to home.

Stephens’ Tony Award-winning play is an adaptation of Mark Haddon’s original novel. (It reminds me of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” another first-person narrative by an exceptional mind.) The book unfolds in Christopher’s subjective world. It seems like unlikely play material. But Stephens did a brilliant job of translating it from page to stage.

Richard Hopkins does justice to this offbeat odyssey. After uncovering Wellington’s killer, Christopher goes on a journey through hell. Most people would call it the London subway system. But it’s hell to Christopher. Hopkins perfectly captures his nerve-wracking quest.

Ordinary minds have filters. Christopher doesn’t. He’s bombarded with information, and constantly lives on the verge of sensory overload. FST’s stagecraft brings his disorientation to life. Kimberly Matela’s costumes evoke the ordinary — except for Christopher’s hooded jacket, that serves as part armor, part security blanket. Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s set design serves as a blank slate for Christopher’s experiential reality. His thoughts are made visible, thanks to Thom Beaulieu’s lighting and Bobby Johnston’s projection design. They paint with light and maps, equations and constellations crawl the walls. When Christopher is on the verge of panic, Thomas Korp’s sound design ratchets up like a dentist’s drill. It’s all fun to see and hear, but this isn’t a light show. There’s a high level of technical excellence, but it always serves the story.

Alexander Stuart stars in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Florida Studio Theatre. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Alexander Stuart’s Christopher is a bundle of raw nerves who can’t stand still. He’s constantly chewing on the drawstring of his jacket, whacking himself in the head, or rocking back and forth. The world is a vampire; he’s constantly on guard so it won’t sink its fangs into him. (This compelling portrait flows from self-knowledge. Stuart himself is on the autism spectrum.) Christopher’s loving father, Ed (Licea), is amazingly self-sacrificial. He’s a tough guy, not a bad guy. But he’s only human, and love isn’t always enough. Christopher’s mother, Judy (Rachel Moulton), loves him too — from a distance. When her son closes the distance, you get a sense of what it costs her. Ashton Heyl serves as a kind of Jungian guide to Christopher. She sometimes plays his teacher, Siobhan. At other times, she’s a presence in his mind, reading the words of his journal or having imaginary dialogs. This core cast is backed up by an excellent ensemble. Playing multiple roles, they deftly embody the scores of faces Christopher encounters on his journey.

This is a smart, absorbing, original play. It could’ve easily been exploitive or superficial. Christopher is a very specific individual, not a generic knockoff of Dustin Hoffman’s “Rainman” character. The playwright pulls you into Christopher’s world. At the same time, Stephens shows the damage Christopher does to the people who love and care for him.  There’s no sugarcoating or sentimentality here. There is a hint of a happy ending. But it’s earned.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the incorrect name for Alexander Stuart, the actor who plays Christopher Boone.

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