While nominally a mystery, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time functions more like a family drama. Christopher (Zach Schnitzer) sets out to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog. His father (Corey Mills) asks Christopher to stay out of it, but Christopher persists, unraveling the fabric of their family life.
While never explicitly stated in the play or in the 2003 novel of the same name, Christopher is on the autism spectrum. Highly intelligent and an amazing math student, he nevertheless almost never wants others to touch him, social cues can be difficult for him to read, and loud/disorienting activities cause him a great deal of anxiety.
Zach Schnitzer’s performance as Christopher, which alternates between quiet and boisterous, is consistently nuanced. His diary/script/novel, as read/performed by his teacher Siobhan (Laura Esping), adds depth, clarity, and structure to the play. Epsing’s performance stands out in a crowd of excellent performances. Not overtly sentimental but wide-eyed and caring, Siobhan is Christopher’s friend and confidant as well as his teacher. She listens to his dreams without judgement and tries to help him formulate his plans. In sharp contrast to his relationship with his parents, Sibhon is always steady and calm with Christopher. Of course, as she explains to him, their relationship is fundamentally different than the one he has with his parents: he can never live with Siobhan; he is not her child. She understands his boundaries and rules, and when she does push against them, she does so in an organized and thoughtful manner. This stands in sharp contrast to his parents. This is not to say that their reactions and needs don’t make sense, but rather that Siobhan, as a professional who works with students like him every day, consistently meets Christopher where he is at.
Corey Mills as Ed Boone and Stacia Rice as Judy Boone do an amazing job making their parts feel human and deeply relatable. Their characters are both flawed, they have hurt both each other and Christopher, but their love for him is unquestionable. At so many moments during this play both seek to touch Christopher -- you can feel their cravings to hold him, to help him. Both do an exquisite job expressing this parental hunger for touch and closeness with their child. They want to hold him, even thought when he is melting down that is unequivocally the last thing he wants. Both are imperfect, but you can tell that they want what is best for him.
The sterile gray set, modular and interchangeable, is reminiscent of the West End/Broadway version, which utilized a grid overlay and movable boxes. Given the tech-heavy nature of the original, I am impressed that Yellow Tree decided to adapt some of these elements for a smaller (and less high-tech) stage. Projection designer Emmet Kowler has worked wonders for this production, which come to the fore when Christopher gets lost inside the train station and underground. Employing an ensemble to move the gray boxes fell a little flat for me, although I applaud Yellow Tree (whose thrust stage feels made for plays that happen within a single location) for attempting to take us to so many locations. The neutral gray is a subtle reminder to the audience that so much of the world feels the same for Christopher. This allows the audience to stay focused on the emotional center of the piece.
Watching this play, I couldn’t help but remember the book and be continually impressed that Yellow Tree took on such a difficult script. Part of the beauty of the book is that Christopher is the reader’s only window into the world and story he tells. He is rather unreliable, but not willfully so. In sharp contrast, a play must show everything. Keeping the audience in Christopher’s viewpoint is so much harder on stage, and I think this cast has done an admirable job showing his experience without over-determining it. The addition of a blue light wand at moments that are intense, noise-cancelling headphones, and even free fidgets speak to the ways Yellow Tree wants to make this production accessible to those who share the same range of sensitivities as Christopher. It is a very inclusive gesture and one I hope they continue in future productions.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at the Yellow Three Theatre until October 13th.