“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” turns Mark Haddon’s novel about a teen with an Asperger’s-like condition into a techno-sensation. The touring version of this British hit and recently closed Broadway success (five Tony Awards) is now blinking and buzzing its way through the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, which makes it one of the biggest plays in town all year: Plays seldom occupy the Opera House.
Design-wise, it’s a whiz, with a jittery, overwhelming package of light and sound that’s meant to take you into the experience of the easily overwhelmed young Christopher (an absolutely terrific Adam Langdon, and played at certain performances by Benjamin Wheelwright). The imaginative “War Horse” director Marianne Elliott situates the show inside a giant cube lined with graph paper by scenic and costume designer Bunny Christie; the video design by Finn Ross and the lights from Paule Constable often turn Christopher’s story into a mind-blowing cinematic extravaganza.
The tale begins with Christopher’s discovery of a dog that has been killed with a large garden fork, but Christopher quickly uncovers mysteries deeper than that. Adventure ensues when Christopher wonders whether his mother’s really dead, and a trip to London — meticulously detailed in Haddon’s novel — is rendered as a sophisticated barrage of noise and moving images, especially when trains are involved.
An odd thing: The show is everything like the book, and nothing like the book. Haddon’s 220-page novel is a lightning-fast read, and Simon Stephens’s 2 ½ -hour adaptation is exhaustively loyal. The novel is self-conscious about being Christopher’s first-person account of what happened, and the play — with actors moving small white crates to and fro as they briskly set scenes and play multiple characters — winks at you about being a play.
But the novel’s voice is Christopher’s, which means it’s flat and factual. When he says he screams or that something scares him, that’s all there is to it. The show renders such moments with all the kinetic energy and wattage it can muster; the lights sizzle and swoosh, and the tight ensemble (with choreography by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly) moves with military precision as Christopher muddles through his empty house, busy streets and the clutter of his own frenetic mind. The show overstates what the book understates. It swings with a very heavy bat.
Like any thrill ride, “Curious Incident” is exactingly engineered, and it’s best not to shortchange how impressive it is. (Intriguingly, it debuted four years ago at London’s Royal National Theatre’s smallest space and was staged in the round; the bigger version is still running in the West End.) Yet the grace of the evening is Langdon’s measured work as Christopher, whose condition is never exactly specified. Langdon is center stage practically all the time, and he inhabits the character’s excitability and anxiety with an always-tense streak of vulnerability.
Much of the rest of the acting in the consciously presentational show is big, as if aiming to match the scale of the high-beam design that might be visible from space if the roof were popped off the Kennedy Center. Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta both make the most of their still, quiet moments as Christopher’s estranged parents, but the mechanical “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is less about opening up probing insight and feeling (despite a sentimental finish) than it is about calculating how to riddle your senses. That works: You will surely leave thinking about what an uncommonly high-flying theatrical ride it all is.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Simon Stephens. Based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Sound design, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; music, Adrian Sutton. With Maria Elena Ramirez, Amelia White, Kathy McCafferty, John Hemphill, Brian Robert Burns, Francesca Choy-Kee, Geoffrey Wade, Josephine Hall, Robyn Kerr, Tim McKiernan, J. Paul Nicholas and Tim Wright. About 2 ½ hours. Through Oct. 23 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $39-$149. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.