Review of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Steppenwolf

This is a theatre review I wrote for a class I took with Rescripted.org this fall — an abridged version of it appeared on their website. Enjoy!

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

*deep, beleaguered sigh* So. . . theatre is subjective, right?

And that’s a bitch sometimes. Because there’s this misconception that criticism is about telling you, the reader, about a work’s objective merits so you can decide whether to go see it or not. When really, that’s mostly impossible, so the best most of us can do is present our subjective experience of a show, and drop in some objective observations to back it up.

But. . . yeah. Full disclosure: three days before I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Steppenwolf, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, watching my best friend perform the role of Christopher Boone in, wouldn’t you know it, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Actors Theatre. It was his first regional role, I was super proud of him and excited to see it, and I was incredibly awed and moved by the whole thing.

And then I came back and saw this, and the best way I can think of to describe it is that it was like going on a roller coaster, and then taking a long, pleasant drive in a Prius. Both experiences were excellently engineered, and achieved what they respectively set out to achieve. But the sad fact remains that one was simply more exciting than the other, and it was difficult not to compare the two.

Steppenwolf is always an odd theatre to walk into, because they have a lot of money, but seem almost ashamed of it? Their downstairs proscenium theater is decorated more like a blackbox, and Brandon Wardell’s set almost evokes a college theater classroom in its monochrome simplicity, complete with black moveable boxes as furniture. Curious Incident is famous for its tech; how projections, lights, and ensemble movement illuminate for us the inside of Christopher’s head, helping us see the world how he sees it. And while all that is present here, it seems to take a backseat: Jonathan Berry’s direction aims to put the actors front and center, to take a tech-heavy, Broadway-sparkly show and Chicago-ize it by stripping away the artifice.

And that works. . . to some extent. At times, the ensemble creates some really compelling moments, where their movements perfectly mirror Christopher’s emotional state and coalesce into stunning, transcendent stage pictures. However, these moments stand out because the ensemble work is largely weak; they seem to have trouble synchronizing, and the choreography often feels musical theatre-y and too big for the space. This, plus the bizarre usage of boxes as set pieces (evoking the high school drama club sketch from SNL) contributes to an unfortunate air of amateurishness.

Thankfully, Christopher is the backbone that holds the show together, and Terry Bell does beautiful work, taking the character’s ticks and quirks and forming them into a truly likable young man. His Christopher is stoic and reserved, but warm and eager as well, and as a result his triumphs are joyful to watch. Cedric Mays and Rebecca Spence as Christopher’s father and mother respectively also deserve mention: Mays is sad and thoughtful and ponderous as Ed and gives empathy to a character that is easy to hate – and Spence is truly heartbreaking as Judy, as she struggles to love the son she has so much trouble understanding.

Ultimately, Curious Incident is a show about empathy, about putting you inside the perspective of one neurodiverse boy whose experience might be alien to you, and letting you see the world through his eyes, feel emotions through his heart. And this production succeeds tremendously at that, albeit with less punch than I might have liked.

But again, I’m biased.

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