Home Made Theater’s “Curious Incident” Compels
“I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies,” says Christopher – or rather his teacher Siobhan who narrates most of the tale of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by reading Christopher’s writing. Home Made Theater’s production, directed by Erin Nicole Harrington and running through May 8th on Broadway in Saratoga, does an overwhelming amount with a complicated space – one that HMT cannot be faulted for. Strong performances outweigh a periodically distracting set.
This story follows Christopher Boone (played by Christopher Buettner), a 15-year-old English boy who lives on the high-functioning end of the Autism spectrum. The mystery is laid out for the audience the second they walk into the theatre: someone has killed a dog with a pitchfork. The dog is right there on the floor. All we know at the jump is that the murderer is not Christopher – who has made “detecting” his job in order to figure out whodunnit. Christopher has a loving relationship with both his father, Ed (Eric Rudy), and his schoolteacher, Siobhan (Jennie Sinnott). Christopher’s mother (Elisa Verb) is also dead – or so he thinks until he finds years of her letters tucked away in his father’s closet. One mystery becomes two, and the challenges of young adulthood co-existing with an intellectual disability inform the rest. Six other talented actors round out the rest of the ensemble, filling in roles and helping the audience peek into Christopher’s brilliant mind. I particularly loved Marilyn Detmer’s Mrs. Alexander and Rick Wissler’s assorted police officers.
Jennie Sinnott gets a workout as Siobhan. As both the partial narrator and an invested character, Sinnott does wonderful work in showing her care for her student. This pays off in Christopher’s “maths”-related triumph, long after he solves his mysteries, where Sinnott’s emotional release is palpable. It’s a beautiful, very human moment. Sinnott shows that Siobhan’s goals as Christopher’s educator are unwavering in her interactions with the other characters; Sinnott’s Siobhan really wants what’s best for Christopher – and she knows that is whatever he wants for himself.
As Christopher learns more about what it is he might want in his life, and what it means for him to be brave, the audience is introduced to his mother Judy as an apparition, she is floating in as a happy memory from a trip to the shore. The difference between this vision and the mother-returned in real life was incredible. A stellar performance from Verb as Judy, showing the complicated emotions some parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities can harbor. Verb’s Judy holds a subtle whimsy at first that turns into an aching longing for a life that could have been. This, contrasted with the quiet anchoring presence of Eric Rudy’s Ed, is grand to see. The lived-in simplicity of Rudy’s performance makes it impressively natural when he helps solve Christopher’s two mysteries – by making confessions of his own, saying “it’s bloody hard telling the truth all the time.” The audience has the sense that Ed really is a man trying to do the right thing, even when his relationship with Christopher seems all but lost. Ed comes back and sets a 5-minute timer to explain to Christopher that he will spend the rest of his days trying to earn his trust again.
It is very hard to not be excited by the performance of Christopher Buettner as Christopher Boone, a young Capital Region actor with a fine resume already. He is the thread that ties all of these performances together and motivates them; his performance grants that motivation. Playing this role is a challenge on quite a few levels – the way we really understand autism as a society is through the lens of young white men. There’s some pressure there. I imagine it also would be accidentally easy to make this character a harmful caricature. You can tell that Buettner has worked attentively with his direction and comes from a perspective of sensitivity and care. I am eager to see what he takes on next.
“Curious Incident” was originally an award-winning book, turned into an award-winning play-within-a-play. The productions on both the West End and Broadway were noted for their innovative use of technology; this standard poses a real challenge for local theatres: to bring that grandeur to an intimate, more practical scale. Now I must make an Ed-like confession of my own: HMT does an alright-at-best job with this. There are great projections to both sides of the galley seating, and when you see how they match the dialogue they can actually assist you with understanding where Christopher is coming from. On the other hand, sometimes the lights went away too quickly and at the end of some scenes were in darkness. Although there was a pinch-hitter on calling tech for opening night, it did seem as though the lights weren’t placed for these scenes to end with much light anyway. Additionally, there are a number of white, cube-like structures that are wheeled in and out to create a great deal of the seating and setting – which make incredibly distracting noises as they are placed back up on their wheels and move. Their function was apparent and I did appreciate the neutrality of the design – but reducing the number of these frame-like structures and instead revamping the utilization of fewer structures would have been effective. Less really can be more sometimes.
“Curious Incident” is a wonderfully ambitious play with performances that bring the audience in and beckons them to invest – the core performers are the highlight here for sure.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” runs through May 8 at Saratoga Arts on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased here.