Review: 'Curious Incident' delivers unusual theater in several dimensions

This coming-of-age journey with an unlikely hero is creatively done.
Adam Langdon, foreground, stars as Christopher, a teen who struggles to express himself. Photo by Joan Marcus
Adam Langdon, foreground, stars as Christopher, a teen who struggles to express himself.Photo by Joan Marcus

TAMPA — Watching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is like going for a run when you're out of shape. Muscles of imagination grumble at being reawakened before they feel refreshed.

The hit play, now at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is easy to enjoy but not to explain. Its staging combines bare-set minimalism with sophisticated visual design. The dialogue of its central character, the brilliant but troubled Christopher Boone, jumps from the tiniest observations of the physical world to the mathematical formulas that hold it together.

The show proves that theater can serve as a magnifying glass or a telescope or both. That reason alone justifies making the trip to catch this diligently executed production.

Like the best-selling Mark Haddon novel on which it is based, the stage adaptation of Curious Incident by Simon Stephens tries to get inside the mind of a 15-year-old boy, to experience his joys and obsessions. Controversy has erupted over just how to describe his cluster of odd behaviors, which include an avoidance of eye contact and fear of being touched. The book wisely avoids a diagnosis, but that hasn't stopped emphatic reactions from some quarters that it mischaracterizes people with autism or Asperger's syndrome.

The play responds to that challenge with three-dimensional lighting, with walls doubling as chalk boards for his diagrams, but also with movement and pantomime. Dancers sit quietly in half-light until called upon to act out some of the emotions Christopher can't express verbally. I enjoyed their graceful simplicity as much as the stream of projected images throughout, which included the random numbers and distant galaxies of his thoughts, though both are impressive.

The title might give the impression that the show is about solving a mystery, a boy's detective work following the murder of the neighbor's dog. That riddle is just an appetizer.

This is really about a much larger search, a coming-of-age journey with an unlikely hero. Christopher, played with an exuberant exactitude by Adam Langdon, might be paralyzed by other people's common speech, but only because he thinks through every word. "For example," he says, "people often say 'Be quiet,' but they don't tell you how long to be quiet for."

As Christopher's father, Gene Gillette looms and whispers and cajoles to Shakespearean effect; and Felicity Jones Latta also shines as the mother he remembers. Maria Elena Ramirez also turns in a memorable performance as Siobhan, the teacher who connects with him.

About the play's overall paradox, the dance elements flow so naturally it's almost a shame we need the special effects in sound and lighting. It would also be disingenuous to pretend that those effects don't help.

One of the strongest elements of the play is its refusal to end on a superficially uplifting note. Heroism has been achieved, a plausible future laid out. But no one is minimizing the challenges that lie ahead for this soul, as he navigates a world known only to himself.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.