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The business of being a migraine-prone theater reviewer means occasionally attending plays while also tending to a splitting headache. Such was the situation I found myself in while seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at Round House Theatre,where I found myself cringing against visual and auditory stimuli while waiting for the play to start.
Usually such a personal detail would be inappropriate to mention in a review, which, while not an objective genre of writing, should at least strive to be as universally applicable and understandable as possible. But it warrants mentioning here for two reasons: first, because it was apropos to be suffering alongside a main character who can also be painfully overstimulated by the world; and second, to highlight that the play is so relentlessly charming and enjoyable that its nearly-three-hour run time pleasantly flies by, even through searing pain. It’s fitting for a play concerned with exploring how we can make meaningful and beautiful connections with the world around us, even when doing so sometimes hurts.
For 15-year-old math genius Christopher Boone (Harrison Bryan), such pain comes with the territory of human connection. He’s in some way neuro-atypical, though an exact diagnosis is never mentioned onstage nor in the Mark Haddon novel the play is adapted from. He finds physical touch distressing, and emotions, expressions, and metaphors opaque. But he’s deeply invested in the human world around him, so when a neighbor’s dog is killed in the middle of the night, he resolves to investigate and discover whodunnit. His enthusiasm for the case is contagious, and he winds up drawing his friends, family, and, with some very mild fourth-wall breaking, the audience into his quest, even as doing so forces him to emerge further and further from his shell.
It’s heartbreaking that Christopher, especially in the play adaptation, and especially as portrayed here by Bryan, is so easy to love and yet, for the characters who care for him, the practical act of loving him is so difficult. Any touch beyond fingertip-to-fingertip, connected at full arm’s length, is prone to send him into acute distress. The play deftly lets the audience slip inside the high walls he’s built around himself. It is possible to see the world through his eyes with designer and co-director Jared Mezzocchi’s impressive projections, which light up an otherwise sparse stage to illuminate Christopher’s imaginary world, where searching his house for a lost item can turn into a point-and-click video game. They show how painfully and chaotically a stimulation-flooded real world can intrude on Christopher’s senses. Ultimately, the audience can, for example, understand Christopher’s wariness at being invited into a stranger’s house, and can also have the emotional intelligence to sense that the kindly older woman means him no harm. Neither character leaves that interaction fully understanding why it failed, but the audience does.
The play and the novel have both enjoyed critical and popular success, but it doesn’t mean that any production is a sure crowd pleaser. Sloppy direction or casting could easily wind up portraying Christopher as either unrealistically treacly, or as offensively stereotyped. But the cast (save a few very minor flubs on their British accents) are effectively perfect, including the live animals that take a bow with the rest of the human cast at the curtain call. Ultimately, this rendition of Curious Incident is so effective at breaking down barriers to create a human connection that even a migraine isn’t enough to stand in its way.
To Dec. 22 at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $46–$93. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.
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