Britain’s Royal National Theatre, which has an annual budget that could make any of America’s fine regional theaters boil with anger, has perfected a model of high-budget playmaking with large casts and technical dazzle that turns many of their products into must-see events, a rarity for straight plays in an age that heavily favors musical theatre. War Horse, a National Theatre production, hit the brass gong when it transferred to Broadway in 2011 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the ever-popular novel by Mark Haddon, raked in the cash during its 2014 Broadway run, which lasted over two years. Now, the National’s production of The Curious Incident has made its way to San Francisco on tour, where it once again has become theatre du-jour for eggheaded San Franciscans looking for something highbrow to do with their teenage children, who are doubtless reading Haddon’s novel in their seventh grade english class.
For those unfamiliar with Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is about Christopher Boone, a 15 year-old child who lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, struggling to maintain a relationship with his separated parents as they themselves struggle to parent a child who will never be easy to care for. Haddon’s book wins no points for an accurate portrayal of autism, but its emotional core is strong and true and the zeitgeist’s heavy interest in autism and Aspergers has turned it into one of the more recognizable books of the 21st century. Simon Stephens’ adaptation of the novel is remarkably faithful to the original work, and carries with it all of the flaws and virtues of its basis, being both moving and aggravating in equal measure in its portrayal of Christopher, but maintaining a remarkable efficiency of storytelling and always proving entertaining on the surface. The piece’s finale still drips with sentiment and it never digs as deep into its characters as it should, but overall Stephens’ play is a solid piece of work, totally deserving being seen if the production is right and will be enjoyed by thousands in the years to come when it inevitably becomes a regional staple.
What remains less convincing here is the staging by Marianne Elliott (who also directed War Horse), which has a serious issue of scale. The National Theatre’s production was obviously granted an inflated budget, and it shows in the staging, which includes elaborate video projections and choreography, as well as a cacophonous soundscape with an original musical score. All of these elements work in their own way, and are often able to successfully capture what one imagines is the interior mind of someone with autism and how they perceive the world. But this excess, along with an inflated cast of twelve, applies an unnecessary shellacking to an already solid play that hinders more than it helps. When overwhelmed with so much technical trickery, it becomes more difficult to connect with the characters as humans and The Curious Incident becomes unnecessarily distant from its audience. Presenting the play in the gargantuan 2,300-seat Golden Gate Theatre does the play no favors, either, as sitting so far away from the characters of a play lessens the impact of the work even further.
The entire ensemble is terrific, especially Felicity Jones Latta as Christopher’s mother, and it would be wonderful to see them perform the play at a smaller venue without all the fuss. Of course, it would no longer be a must-see event, but it might have been better theatre. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Golden Gate is a worthwhile show, but it will certainly be even better when presented by one of America’s aforementioned fine regional theatre companies.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco until July 23. Tickets and information available here.
Photo by Joan Marcus.