NEW YORK — As she did with “War Horse,” director Marianne Elliott devises in the stimulating new stage adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” a luminous technological raiment for a story aimed at older children and adults. Last time, the man-made architecture of a life-sized horse raised the proceedings (for which she was co-director) to the level of the inspirational. On this occasion, it’s the computer graphics-aided infiltration of the mind of a teenager, with a disorder on the autism spectrum, that stamps the evening as exceptional.
Mind you, some of the textual and performance elements of “The Curious Incident,” which began at London’s National Theatre and had its official opening Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, aren’t quite as seamlessly incorporated as the play’s visual marvels. An overly meticulous laying-out of unhappy developments, particularly in Act 1, belabors the storytelling, and the theatrical self-awareness accorded some of the characters — all that “we know we’re in a play” kind of stuff — succeeds only in confirming the need for more stringent editing.
Any time the superfluous conceits begin to bog things down, however, “The Curious Incident” revives, on the strengths of its ingenious design and the dazzling portrayal of its main character, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, by 25-year-old Alex Sharp, in a thoroughly commanding Broadway debut.
Based closely on Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, about a gifted English boy who’s challenged both by a neurological disorder and the severe disturbances of his broken home, Simon Stephens’s script begins with Christopher’s discovery of the body of a neighbor’s dog, speared by a pitchfork — a killing at first mistakenly blamed on him. And though the play embarks with Christopher on his mission to find the killer, the show’s more important ingredients are the unusual workings of Christopher’s brain.
Bunny Christie’s set, a grid lined like a piece of graph paper, is a splendid canvas for Christopher’s rigidly ordered, numerically oriented circuitry, as well as for the images generated by video designer Finn Ross and lighting designer Paule Constable. The odd gaps in Christopher’s ability to relate to other people — he can’t bear to be touched, for instance — are filled for us by the pictorial rendering of his interior life. Projections of cascading numbers and letters, representations of street noise as flashes of undifferentiated static, vividly capture the external stimuli that overwhelm him.
Our perceptions of the story’s adults, including Christopher’s easily provoked father and estranged mother (Ian Barford and Enid Graham, both top-notch) and his empathic teacher (the fine Francesca Faridany), are filtered helpfully through Christopher, whose self-protective antennae seem to pick up on discord at every turn. (In the Boone household, dysfunction has indeed been a way of life.) The boy’s quest for a fitting punishment for the dog’s killer — and a securer sense of himself — culminates in a captivating sequence in Act 2, when Christopher runs away from his father and, on a fraught trip to London, is forced to navigate the mundane perils of the cosmopolitan beehive. An able ensemble that includes Helen Carey, Jocelyn Bioh, Richard Hollis and David Manis excels in realizing this and other illusions, under the guidance of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.
At times, admittedly, you need a little patience with the unfolding of “The Curious Incident.” While the piece supplies its share of touching moments — and even some outrageously sentimental ones, involving a puppy — the world it conjures is never overrun with kindly types, eager to come to the aid of a struggling young soul. That the production remains true to this rather unsparing vision is as much to its credit as is all that technical wizardry.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Paule Constable; video, Finn Ross. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets, $27-$225. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.