Upon discovering the neighbor’s dog killed with a garden fork — and finding himself named lead suspect — fifteen-year-old Christopher begins a murder investigation. A math genius on the autism spectrum, Christopher has a particular temperament for deduction. But his detecting soon unearths secrets beyond those of dead dogs. And so while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as one kind of mystery, it soon becomes another: the mystery of how an extremely sensitive human navigates the complicated and contradictory world of other humans. Good Theater presents an intimate, utterly beguiling production of the Broadway hit, directed by Brian P. Allen, featuring a crack ensemble cast and an extraordinary, mesmerizing performance by Cape Elizabeth native Griffin Carpenter, as Christopher.
The life through which Christopher goes detecting is carefully controlled. He cannot stand being touched. He lives alone with his working-class father, Ed (Rob Cameron), and attends a special needs school where he works one-on-one with Siobhan (Meredith Brustlin, formerly LaMothe). At home in his room, Christopher hangs out with his pet rat, remembers his mother Judy (Janice Gardner), and considers the universe. But as his investigation expands, he encounters new enigmas — brusque strangers, noisy trains, and a cacophony of neighbors, policemen, and station agents (Amy Roche, Christopher Holt, Allison McCall, and Jared Mongeau, variously and gamely) with whom he must interact if he wants to get to the bottom of things.
Christopher covers quite some ground as he does, in settings onstage that are fluid and abstract, set mostly with cubes. The location represented most literally, with whiteboards and markers, is Christopher’s classroom — an apt choice, since school is where his idiosyncracies find purest purpose, where he’s most insulated from adults’ inconsistencies. Outside, the world is strange, arbitrary, and loud, qualities that we sometimes experience subjectively, as if through his so sensitive ears. Meanwhile, the show’s ensemble slips between the characters Christopher encounters and more whimsical evocations of how he sees the world: they move like automatons as Christopher tries to understand a subway car; they spin with flashlights as he explains the light and lives of the stars. With such unadorned focus on movement, gesture, and sound, Allen’s staging amplifies what is at the heart of Christopher’s story — the way in which one sensitive human experiences the world.
That one human is portrayed with astonishingly rich and subtle physical work by Carpenter (who consulted with the Autism Society of Maine for this role). His Christopher’s face, flushed and childlike, registers every sound and movement around him; his eyes widen, squint, never hold anyone else’s gaze for long. As if in eternal strain or self-soothing, his lanky frame moves constantly: bending, stretching, pulling at belt loops, tapping his head, tracing the flesh of his ear. It’s excruciating to watch him suffer, sob, and rock; Carpenter’s performance is so exacting and so empathetic that it’s easy to project our own selves at our most vulnerable, stripped of all emotional tools and social facades.
As one of the key figures in Christopher’s life, Cameron makes tangible the vigilance, exhaustion, and devotion of being at once this boy’s father and a man with his own problems and flaws; and Gardner’s Judy has an insistent hope and upward lilt in her voice as she reassures and reasons with her son. And Brustlin, as Siobhan, is expansive in her warmth; she has a way of not flinching from Christopher’s distress but receiving and soothing it.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is articulate and generous, scintillating with wit and allusions. Like Sherlock, Christopher has an obsession for details and esoteric knowledge, for the five different kinds of grass in the back yard, and under Allen’s perceptive and affectionate direction, Carpenter pulls us into this heightened state. Indeed, perhaps the most profound achievement of his performance is that it seems a portrait not of disability, but simply of a different state of consciousness – one from which we all might have something to learn.
Because who are we kidding: a lot in our so-called neuro-typical world is a weird and confounding mystery — mindless social conventions, the legacy of hurt, a subway car full of people avoiding each other’s eyes. All of us, it turns out, are trying to figure it out.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | By Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Brian P. Allen | Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St, | Through October 28 | Thu 7 pm; Sat 3 & 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm; Tue-Thu 7 pm | www.goodtheater.com