Review by Joe Eriole
In reviewing Rhinebeck Theater Society’s (RTS) production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it is necessary to note that the company is producing a remarkable script, by Simon Stephens, adapted from an even more remarkable book by Mark Haddon. It won the Tony for Best Play in 2015.
These advantages are, in fact, dangerous pitfalls. The material is at once delicate and powerful, and the protagonist written so beautifully, that missing the mark would result in something more than poor entertainment or bad art. Undertaken by a company of ordinary ability and commitment, there would be a tragic gap between the heights the script ascends and the image on the stage.
These risks are noted because RTS has produced something so effective and engrossing that one might be tempted to view it as an inevitable outcome of such a brilliantly written story, but that would vastly underrate what RTS has accomplished here. There is no person credited in the program, whether onstage or off, whose contribution is not evident in its finished product. We’ll return to the RTS story shortly; first, a brief synopsis of the Curious Incident story.
The focus is on 15-year-old Christopher Boone who sets out to solve the mystery of who killed a neighborhood dog, of whom he was very fond. In attempting to get to the bottom of the matter, Christopher must challenge authorities he has previously obeyed without questioning; he must push the limits of his own experience and abilities; and he must come face-to-face with hurtful and disappointing truths about the most important people in his life.
All the action is presented through the voice and eye of Christopher – every other character is portrayed only as Christopher perceives them. The high art of the play is that Christopher’s perspective is of a young man on the spectrum. In his playbill notes, Director Andy Weintraub points out that this diagnosis for Christopher is made by professionals who have read the book and the play, and assessed Christopher’s behaviors, as well as his emotional and intellectual processes. Autism, however, is never actually mentioned in the book or the script. There, Christopher is simply one of us – seeking answers to things which have meaning for him by using all the skills at his disposal, and fighting through all the limitations that restrict him. Like the rest of us, his capabilities and restrictions range from negligible to very great indeed.
It is a challenge of enormous proportions to play Christopher in a way that presents his autism authentically while connecting the audience to the universality of his search for meaning, trust, joy, and achievement. The performance of Michael Wagner as Christopher is simply stunning. You will not see a better performance in any venue, at any level, than Mr. Wagner delivers in this production. The physicality of his performance is mesmerizing, the affectation in his voice and movement is consistent, convincing and utterly effective. When he takes the deep dive digressions into Christopher’s brilliant mind for math and physics, we are transfixed – suddenly intently interested in what Christopher sees, even when we cannot comprehend it. And at the show’s conclusion, Wagner makes us all feel a little better about our own feeble abilities by giving us the impression we know something about triangles that only people as gifted as Christopher really understand. Wagner is a revelation here.
As Christopher’s parents, Alex Skovan and Dorothy Luongo present heartfelt characters whose shortcomings are balanced by powerfully portrayed love for their son and pain over the compromised relationships the challenges of parenting Christopher have brought to bear.
Skovan’s Ed is imposing and agitated; we never doubt that he is capable of the missteps and even malice we discover, but Skovan’s performance also maximizes every moment with Wagner so that his devotion to Christopher is never in doubt, either.
Luongo is an actor of great instinct and emotional energy. Like Ed, the flaws in Luongo’s Judy are stark and, in relation to her son, perhaps even more disappointing. But Luongo’s commanding expression of her deep love and sadness when alone with Christopher, and her fierceness once resolved to act on his behalf, are moving portraits of a mother’s love and an actor’s craft.
When the play is not carried by Christopher’s inner dialogue, it is narrated by Siobhan, a trusted teacher and touchstone for Christopher. Siobhan is beautifully played by Emily McCarthy, whose portrayal is unabashedly loving, with a believable touch of professional concern for Christopher that a person in Siobhan’s position would need to possess.
The supporting cast, all of whom are called upon to play multiple roles, each deserve mention. They must each perform characters throughout the play with plausible distinctive traits, while also acting as living set pieces and props. Patricia Seholm, David Foster, Logan Gray Hall, Andy Crispell, Lisa Delia, and Jody Satriani, all do excellent, committed work here. Their desire to support the value and quality of the production in every aspect is obvious. Even amid Wagner’s tour-de-force, there is never a moment when the audience member feels the level of the play drop, a great credit to the quality of the actors who round out this cast.
As mentioned at the outset, everyone credited in the program made a contribution which could be clearly seen in the finished product.
Weintraub’s direction allows for a captivating theatrical experience. Deferring, as he acknowledges in his own program notes, to the particular skills and experience of his technical crew and actors, his role in the production is apparent. Choices must be made, after all, from among the collective wisdom of a talented crew. Weintraub’s leadership results in a complex but never heavy-handed production.
The play is set in the U.K., and every actor speaks in an English accent. The use of accents in live theater is often a disastrously distracting choice; here much credit must be given to the actors, to Russ Austin who is credited as a dialect coach, and to the producer and director for engaging a dialect coach. The dialects are never a distraction and add to the quality of the show. Mr. Austin is also credited as a Music Consultant, and here again, the contribution is evident. The mood of the show is constantly supported by an intriguing musical score.
The onstage movement must be crisp and angular to match the movement of Christopher’s mind. These orchestrations are not window-dressing; they are integral to us seeing the world as Christopher sees it. Marcus McGregor is credited as Choreographer and Co-Director. The play has no dancing, and yet every moment of it is a dance. Kudos to Mr. McGregor.
Mr. Weintraub doubles his Director’s duties with Set & Lighting Design. The staging of the play is in some respects remarkably simple, but only at first glance. Its geometric floor and backdrop, its use of spots to delineate time and space, and its gorgeous projection of the spiraling machinations of Christopher’s mind are an entertainment of their own. This cannot be mentioned without acknowledging the quality of the graphics under the direction of Daniel Chester, and the equally impactful work of Patrick McGriff (Sound Design), Harley Putzer (Scenic Design), Tom Starace (Flyer Design), Light and Sound Board Operators Paige Segrell and Liz Crew, respectively, Jan Brooks, Heidi Johnson and Sally Nogg (Spot Operators), and Run Crew Harriet Luongo (Run Crew). Stage Manager, Patti Smith, and Co-Stage Manager, Joe Beem, run a sharp stage production in a story that demands clean lines and seamless movement.
The final credit here goes to Producer Heidi Johnson. This is Ms. Johnson’s first foray into the dangerous waters of Production.This show’s mix of subtlety and overt sensitivity, together with taking the risk of attempting it not knowing whether it could be properly cast and technically achieved, deserves no small measure of appreciation.
The show is in the final weekend of its run this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with tickets available online atwww.centerforperformingarts.org. It deserves the attention of any serious fan of live theater. Simply put, see this play.
NOTE: In partnership with the Anderson Center for Autism, a special autism-friendly performance will be held on Saturday, Mar. 2 at 2 p.m. This special matinee, designed to support the needs of those on the autism spectrum and their families, will feature lower sound and light effects and dimmed (not dark) house lighting. The lobby will also be available for those who need to take a break during the show. All audiences are welcome to attend this performance.
Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.