A curious night at the theater

BETC brings another award-winning play to Boulder

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Alex Rosenthal as Christopher Boone in the BETC production of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.'
Michael Ensminger

Half of a geodesic dome fills most of the Grace Gamm Theatre stage at the Dairy Arts Center.  The dome is built of thin, circular pipe. Material covers many of the dome’s triangular sections while other sections are empty. Movable, triangular platforms dot the stage, some standing on their short sides, some resting on their long ones. The set design’s simplicity belies its geometric complexity, which mirrors the thematic duality of the play for which it was constructed, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

After premiering in London in 2012, playwright Simon Stephen’s stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time quickly became a theatrical sensation. Its London and later Broadway productions earned dozens of awards including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Tony Award for Best Play. And yet, while theater critics on both sides of the pond have praised various aspects of the play, their plaudits have more often than not carried with them a certain reticence.

That is the most curious thing about The Curious Incident. How is it that a play can garner so many accolades but still be met with such reserve? The subject matter seems to have much to do with this. While the word “autism” is never spoken, the play’s protagonist, 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Alex Rosenthal), is clearly on the spectrum. Possessing an eidetic memory and genius-level math skills, Christopher struggles to navigate social interactions.  He reacts in a fiercely negative way whenever he is touched. He attends a special school where the course of study includes basic life skills in addition to the three Rs.

Autism remains a hot-button issue. Concerns about the alleged — and scientifically unproven — connection between childhood vaccinations and the development of autism have fueled the anit-vax movement. Rising autism rates appear to track more with increased diagnoses in light of newly applied, broader definitions of the condition. This, no doubt, imbues The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with a topical urgency many new plays lack.

Part Sherlock Holmesian mystery, part family drama, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is set in motion by the murder of a dog named Wellington. The dog’s owner, Mrs. Shears (MacKenzie Byer), accuses her neighbor, Christopher, of the senseless act of canicide. To clear his name, Christopher embarks on a quest to unmask the real killer. His chronicle of the investigation takes the form of a book, passages from which are read aloud to the audience by Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan (Anastasia Davidson), and serve as narration for the play.

The first act of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time culminates in the identification of the dog killer and an explication of the murderer’s motives.  It feels so clean, so complete, that when the lights in the theater came up I was powerfully curious about what the second act would have to offer. The answer, it turns out, is not terribly much. I can’t elaborate without spoiling an essential plot point, but suffice it to say that what could have been a compelling one-act play languishes in the doldrums of a patently unnecessary and, frankly, laborious second act.

Those familiar with the London, Broadway or 2017 Denver Center for the Performing Arts productions of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time understand the intense technical requirements of this show. The play is built on a precise and demanding multimedia presentation. The screened sections of the geodesic dome are used to project still and moving images that, in concert with complex auditory stimuli, are intended to immerse the audience in the world as filtered through Christopher’s consciousness.  

Despite its relatively small budget, BETC succeeds unequivocally with its technical presentation of this uniquely challenging production design. In truth, every technical aspect of BETC’s production is spot on. The direction by Stephen Weitz, as usual, astounds. Tina Anderson’s set design, Colin D. Young’s lighting design, Brian Freeland’s projection design, Jonathan Holt Howard’s sound design, Brenda King’s costume design and Jordan Brockman’s properties design are all award worthy. The actors, led by a truly outstanding performance by Rosenthal in the lead role, evince high levels of skill.

If only the play itself had been lighter in touch and fleeter of foot, more entertaining and less the longest PSA ever for autism awareness and equality.  

ON THE BILL:The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’ BETC at the Dairy, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, betc.org, $20 and up. Through May 19.