I was at a very crowded Powell’s Books in Portland last weekend and watched one 22-ish woman hold up a copy of an Eckhart Tolle paperback and solemnly say to her 22ish friend, “Read this. It will change your life.”
I’ve never read anything by Eckhart Tolle, but I know the author’s name from having seen it in airport bookstores for the last several years. Vaguely self-help, I think? Maybe business related? Or “spiritual”? Whatever the classification, I just have a sense his (her?) books won’t be to my taste, primarily because they’re satisfying to so many people. This bias doesn’t obtain with music, films, or TV, but somehow, books for everyone—the kind of books read by people who only read those kind of books—aren’t for me.
I’d always assumed that’s what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was, too: An airport book. Something like self-help or get ahead in business or Buddhism for Capitalists or Who Moved My Cheese or whatever. Turns out it’s actually a novel, and that novel is a family drama disguised as a mystery story, and it’s also a play, and that play was a huge hit on Broadway that won Tony awards a couple years back and the touring version is at the Paramount through this weekend.
It also turns out that the production stirs up lots of interesting questions and dilemmas relating to one of the central preoccupations people have about performed art these days—representation. (To that end, it’s also dotted with potentially “problematic” elements to do with same.) It’s also a showcase for staggeringly effective and versatile stage design.
It’s also an efficient and oddly affecting variation on the sentimental treatment of redemptive family love that prevails in most narrative storytelling. It’s also funny. It’s also humane. It’s also very “good,” in the same sense that Elvis Costello once shamed a journalist who had just impugned EC’s then-new writing partner by asking, “compared to whom is Paul McCartney not good?”
It has a good premise, a good story, good acting, good staging, good craft, good sound design, good light design, and lots of other good things. It’s very good, very pro, and very, you know, worth the $40-$85 it will cost you to get your hands on a ticket to any of the five remaining performances.
Still, I did find myself wondering as the play went on—how the hell did this play win Tonys? What is it about this relatively simple story that strikes a chord among so many people (five million copies of the book have sold to date, the Broadway production ran for four years). And when it was over, and the obligatory Seattle standing ovation creaked to its feet, I found I still didn’t quite know.
Was it the inversion of the classic expectations of a protagonist? The story is motorized by a young man named Christopher (played the night I saw it by Adam Langdon) who is either autistic or has Asperger’s (the book is apparently intentionally vague on this point, and the play doesn’t specify either)—but who, in any case, echoes the familiar Rain Man-nish traits of not being able to read social cues, make prolonged eye contact, or to bear any kind of human physical contact beyond a gradual palm-to-palm touch with his parents. (He’s more comfortable cuddling dogs and rats.)
Christopher also speaks in a clipped, nasal, robot voice with musical inflections played for comic effect. He’s also exceptionally good at math(s—the play takes place in England) and is reduced to screaming fits by the interruption of his routine. In short, he presents a broad, intentionally comic figure, in contrast to the “normal” world of people who surround him.
When he discovers the murdered body of the titular dog in his neighbor’s garden, he embarks on an investigation that leads him into traumatic adventures that reveal uncomfortable truths about his immediate world. These discoveries change everything about his situation, but they don’t change him. They can’t.
Hence, what we expect from a drama of this kind (and maybe, in a larger sense, what we want from all stories) is necessarily subverted, and not unproductively.
Christopher’s unconventional mien makes the background characters—his mother, father, teacher, neighbors, and various ancillary figures, all ingeniously portrayed by an ensemble—the “real” story, as they respond in a variety of ways to someone whose capacity for relation is categorically alien to theirs.
But Christopher is always at the physical center of everything. His impulses and responses propel the plot and define the people, but more to the point, the whole play is staged as a kind of recreation from his memory, and with his frequent comical intervention.
The set, three massive walls with thrilling light and video capabilities, with compartments that open into cubby holes, and a series of modular boxes that are used as various props, is apparently meant to evoke both his mania for order, and the natural chaos that follows from an effort to rationalize an inherently disordered world. It's an IKEA of the mind that also serves, alternately, as graph paper, JumboTron, and cage. Honestly, it's worth seeing the show just to see the set.
The choreography and interaction with this set is always inventive and often sublime, creating an almost Escherian dimension of space and motion that constantly enlivens the narrative.
Maybe that was the source of my quandary: Not that what I was seeing wasn’t a pleasure to see. It was. But I did have a recurring sense that the constant need to enliven the narrative meant that the narrative was itself not massively interesting. Which, to be totally candid, I kind of admire.
Stories aren’t everything. And a play that seeks to convey the inner life of a boy who is essentially a cipher represents an audacious effort to liberate the theatrical experience—specifically the big, mainstream Broadway version of it—from the mere telling of a story. (That might also account from why so many people ditched the show at intermission.) I’m on board for that kind of liberation as a rule.
On the other hand, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that all the stuff of the show was a fancy way of unspooling a somewhat ordinary suburban family melodrama. And they even have the cheapest theatrical trick of all time: a live puppy.
And then there’s the matter of Christopher himself, whose—what is the right word? Condition? Attunement? Situation?—is played broadly for laughs that sometimes feel—again, what is the right word? Uncomfortable? Irresponsible? Problematic? Gimmicky?
I should emphasize that I can’t tell whether the contemporary mania for identifying the “offensive” in public discourse has clouded my judgment on this point, but I definitely had that thing of unconsciously looking over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t committed some moral breach by laughing at the odd laugh line that issued from the disjunction between Christopher and polite society.
But more meaningfully: Certain crucial moments of attempted connection suffer for the broadness of the character's construction; I found myself recalling George, a wrenching documentary about the challenges of parenting an autistic child—the reference is obscure, but it felt significant that I saw the film once in 2001 and remembered it vividly during this show.
Then again, Adam Langdon’s performance was unquestionably skillful, consistent, and, if you can say this about the portrayal of a character whose relationship to feeling itself is inherently muted and inarticulate, empathetic. The real subject of this play is Christopher’s vulnerability, which is an inherent generator of drama—even if the story and characters that rub up against that vulnerability aren’t terribly fascinating to begin with.
Maybe that’s why it’s so popular. It puts the audience in the same position not as the main character, but as the ensemble: We yearn to connect with someone who can’t receive that connection on our familiar terms, and we find that we are pulling for him, even loving him, anyway.
This stands in stark contrast to the other touring Broadway show about unconventional families available to Seattle audiences this month. When the lights went down on Fun Home, I rocketed to my feet, smear the tears and snot away from my raw-skinned, red face in the process, certain that I’d seen something entirely new (no, not just a musical with good songs) on a stage, and avid, almost desperate, to go see it again. Which I did, a few nights later.
I wouldn’t run to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a second time. But I’m glad I saw it once, if only because it helped me remember that even airport novels can contain something beautiful.
Who would read them if they didn’t?