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"The Curious Incident..." connects with audiences in and out of the autism spectrum

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Plays don’t come more decorated than “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night-Time.”

The stage adaptation of British author Mark Haddon’s surrealistic novel won seven Oliver Awards in England in 2013, while the Broadway version took home five Tony Awards and seven Drama Desk Awards. Not bad for a tale about a young man on the autism spectrum who’s investigating the death of a neighbor’s dog.

“I think anyone that knows the book automatically probably starts furrowing their brow, wondering, ‘How do you make that into a play?’” notes associate director Ben Klein, a University of Michigan theater graduate who’s been on the American “Curious Incident” team since it came to Broadway in 2014. “(Its success) was a big, big surprise to everyone. I know the English company, when they started it, everyone was telling them it’s a bad idea. It was such a beloved book over there, they were worried it would fail.

“But it did really well and kept going and kept being a surprise at each turn. And then all of a sudden it was on Broadway, winning all these Tonys, running for close to two years, and now to be traveling across the United States is the biggest surprise.

“That’s probably how it happens more often than not. You don’t expect it to be a success and just go for it. If you do expect (success), you’re not challenging yourself enough.”

The main challenge for “The Curious Case” was its point of view. In the novel, the story takes place inside the mind of Christopher Boone, the play’s 15-year-old protagonist — not exactly a model for theater narration. So playwright Simon Stephens and West End director Marianne Elliott flipped the script, and bolstered the role of Siobhan (“shi-VAUGHN”), Christopher’s trusted paraprofessional and school mentor, who helps him learn live within societal rules.

“(The play) uses Siobhan as the narrator, reading (Christopher’s) book as he does the assignment she gave him,” Klein, 36, says by phone from New York City. “That gives us the ability to still hear his thoughts and hear how he views different things. And it also really helps establish the relationship between Christopher and Siobhan as someone he feels he can trust.”

The shift has another benefit for Adam Langdon, 24, who plays the extremely physical role of Christopher in the touring company.

“It’s good ’cause I get a break from speaking,” Langdon says by phone from a tour stop in Fayetteville, N.C. “It’s a great dynamic. There’s a lot of mutual respect there. (Christopher) can see Siobhan as an intelligent person more so than other people in the play, like his dad. She respects that he’s a unique individual, and he trusts her.”

“The Curious Incident” also has been celebrated for its staging, an automated and athletically choreographed spectacle big enough that it collapsed the ceiling of Apollo Theatre in London in 2013.

“It’s a captivating, huge production — bigger than or just as big as a lot of musicals,” Klein notes. “But I think at its center, what’s really interesting is there’s all the bells and whistles, and then there are times when it’s just as intimate as the best play out there, telling the story about Christopher and his family and representing people who see the world differently, like Christopher does. I think people are really shocked about how beautiful and theatrical and also how human the story is.

“You kind of get a little of everything in this show.”

It also connects with the human world it portrays. After taking the Broadway cast to the Quality Services for Autistic Community in New York for research, Klein says the production continued a relationship with the program.

“They’re a wonderful partner,” Klein says. “We’ve gone there a couple of different times to just say, ‘Hey guys, what’s it like being you?’ which has been really helpful to our company.”

Langdon, meanwhile, says that while the play treats Christopher “as this incredibly unique, intelligent young man” without a specific label, he’s had plenty of positive feedback from the autism community.

“I remember early on when we were in D.C., we had this huge school group come — 30 kids from around the spectrum, all very different,” Langdon says. “As I was leaving the theater each one came up to me and said, ‘Hi, this is me. This is my deal and we’ve never felt represented on stage before and it was really incredible to see that.’ That just blew me away.

“We have parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and teachers telling us ‘You’ve captured something I see in my students’ or ‘I see in my son’ on a daily basis. I realized all the literal blood, sweat and tears all of us have spilt has been so worth it. That’s a really awesome feeling, and it makes you really want to do justice to something you can only try to understand.”

• “The Curious Incident Of the Dog In The Night-Time” runs May 2-14 at The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $35-$135. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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