‘Curious Incident’ Lives Up to the Hype, and Danner Brings Magic to ‘Country House’

Alex Sharp stars in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Ethel Barrymore.
Alex Sharp stars in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Ethel Barrymore. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Riding in on a tsunami of hype from across the pond, I feared The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would be as pretentious as its title. I am happy to report it is nothing of the kind. It’s not exactly what I’d label my cup of English breakfast tea, and its exaggerated sense of innovation overloads it with the kind of baggage that is often more annoying than elevating, but for the current mob of high rollers who don’t mind spending a fortune for overpriced seats and hate anything to do with classical or traditional theater (i.e., plot), it’s got “hit” written all over it. And although it took almost the entire length of the production to get there, I finally enjoyed it, too.

You can write the story on the head of a pin. Six minutes after midnight, a big furry dog named Wellington is found dead with a pitchfork through its corpse in an English country garden. The 15-year-old boy who discovers it is Christopher Boone, an idiot savant with shades of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. With a terror of being touched, an abhorrence of the color yellow and afflicted with virulent temper tantrums, Christopher has the mind of a child, but with his genius for math and the study of ethics and logic, he also has a curiosity for mystery and adventure, inspired by his hero Sherlock Holmes, that sets him on a course to find out who killed Wellington.

Bringing the culprit to justice becomes a project even though it means running away from home to do it. From this deceptively simple idea, adapted from a novel by Mark Haddon, playwright Simon Stephens has fashioned a theater piece with the gargantuan support of a technical staff that does most of the work, except for the exceptional talent of Alex Sharp, who plays Christopher at most performances, and by Taylor Trensch at others, for obvious reasons. The role is so physically and verbally demanding it requires alternates to ensure eight performances a week.

The lighting, scenic, costume and video designs are so elaborate that the technicians are the real stars of the show, with director Marianne Elliott pulling the strings at command central and coordinating massive cues for a talented cast of 15 performers in multiple roles, with time left over to pose questions about spirituality and the world beyond the perimeters of Christopher’s realm of thinking. Like, “Where, in the universe, is heaven?” And, “How do dead people get there without a space ship?” Structuring the play in a series of long, tedious monologues narrated by Christopher’s special-needs teacher, from his journals in his own voice, did not work for me at all. The idea of a grown woman playing a mentally challenged boy’s alter ego to move the plot along is just an annoying gimmick that achieves the opposite effect—an affectation that slows things down considerably.

The boy leaves home to find his mother in the city, disillusioned by the flaws of adults, struggling to escape the warren of tangled wires in a London tube station. The staging is a masterpiece of Minimalism and how much imagination you can use to bring it all to life. Lost in the Underground, solving mind-boggling number puzzles or mourning the death of his pet rat, Christopher becomes so real in his autistic little world that it’s hard to harness a sob.

Still, this a play about movement, and there’s such an abundance of it that two choreographers, one dance captain and a fight coordinator, are listed in the Playbill credits. The walls are black squares divided into cubes by white lines like the wall vaults in cemetery mausoleums. Sometimes they open into doors and boxes from which props and toys are extracted. There’s a rain of white paper from the ceiling, strobe lights and confetti. At the performance I saw, Mr. Sharp was perfect in every way, and in the end all the pieces fit together satisfactorily, erasing all doubts in a finale that is uplifting, life-affirming and wonderful. See The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an adventure that is refreshingly original. It’s an upper with the kind of energy you won’t get from any pill.

***

Donald Margulies’ The Country House is a well-written, expertly mounted (by veteran director Daniel Sullivan) and lavishly designed (by John Lee Beatty) play about the theatre and the people who keep it alive, even in the summer, and especially in Williamstown. A sublime cast provides both the humor and the hysterics in a house of hams holed up for the summer in the Berkshires. Blythe Danner provides the magic.

She’s Anna Patterson, a fading star who has opened the house every summer for decades, playing everything from Chekhov to Shakespeare. This year she’s doing Mrs. Warren’s Profession and grappling with Shaw’s verbosity while mourning the death of her actress daughter Kathy and playing emotional Scrabble with her guests—Kathy’s teenage daughter Susie (Sarah Steele), Kathy’s ex-husband Walter (David Rasche), her unhappy son Elliot (Eric Lange) and beautiful actress Nell McNally (Kate Jennings Grant), who was once Elliot’s lover but is now engaged to marry his dead sister’s husband Walter.

Angst and thinly veiled barbs collide until Michael Astor (Daniel Sunjata), an old summer fling of Anna’s who has matriculated to the status of a star on one of those TV hospital shows, arrives to do Molnar’s The Guardsman and crashes on the sofa. Act Two smashes whatever pretense to camaraderie this motley group might have by a reading of Elliot’s new play. A fistfight breaks out amidst huge outbursts of truth and hypocritical flummery, and a storm drenches what’s left of the flagging spirits as well as the wainscoting. Everyone is marvelous, each character has a moment of truth, and all and sundry face life’s most daunting tragedies bravely, knowing when all else fails, there’s always another play. 

Too languid and facile for some, perhaps, but the treasured value of time well spent with the incandescent Ms. Danner is a blessing for all.

‘Curious Incident’ Lives Up to the Hype, and Danner Brings Magic to ‘Country House’