I am a bit jealous of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It is a novel that is indirectly about autism and which was published around the same time as Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, which is very directly about autism. Of the hundreds of novels I have represented as a literary agent, Moon's is unabashedly the one I am proudest of. It won the Nebula Award and has become a small part of the canon, used in a number of campus and community reading events. But it hasn't been Curious Incident, which won many prizes and has been sold in twice as many languages and become much more of a thing.
My mild envy extends to the fact that the Mark Haddon novel has been adopted for the stage, with the play by Simon Stephens getting rave reviews in London and winning the Olivier Award for best play. And now it's on Broadway. And jealous or not, I am somewhat curious about the Curious Incident. If I'm still not interested in the novel (ennui, disinterest, scared, who knows…) the play is an opportunity to experience it once removed. So when I saw it on the TKTS half-price list last week, I decided "what the hey," and soon found myself in the front row for the second night of previews.
And I've got to say, the play is better than solid, and boasts and excellent performance in the lead role by Alex Sharp, a young British actor fresh out of Julliard, who has a two page profile in the September Playbill.
Sharp plays Christopher Boone, a 15-year old who is likely on the autism spectrum. According to the Playbill article the book never states this clearly, but if you follow the duck test, a kid with poor social skills who hates to be touched, fares poorly in crowds, doesn't do well outside of his home environment, etc. etc. -- yes, tis a lot like autism. He sets out to do detective work to find out who killed a neighbors' dog, which leads to revelations about his family, which leads to a road trip.
Among the many strengths of Sharp's performance is that he plays an annoying character without ever being annoying, which is not at all an easy thing to do, and this in turn enables the play to hit its notes without ever seeming manipulative or cloying. It might have been an early preview, but Sharp received a stirring standing ovation from the near to capacity crowd, and the play seems quite likely to duplicate on Broadway the success that it has had in the West End. And it deserves to. Hard to believe I walked out of Harper Regan, the last play I saw from this playwright!
The production is directed by Marianne Elliott, and physically the play takes place in what is essentially a big modernistic hi-tech box with few actual sets. Boxes, mostly. Trap doors for a dead dog to emerge from at the start, or which open to present a trench for the Underground tracks when Christopher is journeying on the Bakerloo line. It works well enough; it enhances the words, doesn't get in the way of them, and connoisseurs of model train sets will enjoy some of what happens within the box of little boxes. And people who remember the old Automat days may enjoy the way Christopher Boone is able to get things from the little boxes as well; it's almost like there's a little old lady putting new mac & cheese in, only in this case it's the ingredients for the model train.
This was a second preview performance. As I exited, I could see a lot of people clearly not getting ready to leave, as there are notes to be given and changes and fine-tuning to be made. Likely more notes for the supporting cast than for Alex Sharp. He's about as perfect as I'd think he can get, but no one character in the supporting cast had quite that same effect. And it's kind of hard, because almost all the supporting cast are playing multiple roles, and "just right" for one may not be exactly that for another of the roles.
There ought to be some notes on the play! Good as it is the first act could be delicately trimmed, 30 seconds from this scene and two lines in another. The second act can definitely be taken in a notch. In particular, Christopher's road trip is done up quite a bit, choreographed cast-wide urgency up and down and across the stage, all staged beautifully, very energetic and thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd. And it would still be all of that were it two or four minutes tighter. My guess is people aren't looking too much at changes to an award-winning play that's getting standing ovations, but if it's four or eight minutes shorter (and almost certainly not ten minutes shorter; it's needs a bit of a trim but only that) it will be better.
Did the play make me want to read the book? No. But the people sitting next to me were thinking they should. And while there hasn't been much sign I can see that people who read the Haddon novel go looking for more and fine their way to Elizabeth Moon's as a next stop, I can hope a successful play might say something to the people who have circled around doing a film or play from The Speed of Dark.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.