At a quick glance, Oregon Contemporary Theatre is serving up some Sherlock Holmes vibes with a sprinkle of pitchforked pup in the Tony Award-winning drama, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Usually, I try to avoid any plot involving a dog; Mad Max’s bandana-wearing Australian shepherd being speared with a crossbow was enough for me. But, let me assure you, no real dogs — or even stuffed ones — are harmed in this enchanting and innovative journey of a 15-year-old savant.
Based on the book by Mark Haddon, translated to the stage by Simon Stephens and directed by John Schmor, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of Christopher Boone (Nate Pereira), a gifted teen apparently on the autism spectrum, though that’s never explicitly stated.
Too literal for metaphors and unable to navigate the gamut of human emotions, he is at odds with the world around him. More storybook than stage, the language is layered, charming and sometimes antiquated. Frequent “fucks” between formal diction give this play within a play a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle meets Rain Man in the London Underground feel. After being wrongly accused of killing his neighbor’s dog, Christopher sets out to find the killer, freeing some nasty familial skeletons from their closets.
The minimalist set features few props on a bare grid formation, a map of Christopher’s unusual mind — lonely, isolated and formulaic. Christopher chalks emoticon faces into the floor, all pained and unsure. Actors portray doors, plants, beds, offering window into the boy who doesn’t quite see the people around him. Conversely, projections of heavenly bodies against night skies illuminate Christopher’s ability to see beyond people’s limitations.
The characters are every human flavor of disgusting and delicious. Pereira’s performance is visceral: emotional, physical and, dare I say, spiritual. Paul Dunckel brilliantly blends the line between villain and loving father, spraying a hearty amount of impassioned red mist in the air. Inga R. Wilson, who plays Christopher’s mother, is both stunning and painfully relatable for any mother who’s ever doubted her capacity for love.
One of the most powerful scenes comes when his mother bares all in a letter while Christopher frantically builds a toy railway across an empty stage. The scene ends abruptly when cascading letters land in a perfect mess around his body, a moving mic drop on Christopher’s naiveté.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time hits you in the gut. It’s familiar, but not entirely predictable. The twists are more earth shattering for Christopher than the audience, but Christopher’s endearing perspective hooks you whether you see it coming or not. The ending is a little too triumphant, a double down on gut punches that feels forced and overly simplified.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through Saturday, Feb. 8, at OCT. Tickets are $15-$42 at OCTheatre.org