The last time director Justin Anderson collaborated with projection designer Milton Cordero, the result was this summer’s technically ostentatious biblical musical “Children of Eden” at Aurora Theatre (where Anderson is the associate artistic director). If nothing else, the show proved that all the bells and whistles in the theatrical universe can’t spin gold out of utterly simplistic and mediocre material.
Anderson and Cordero are up to their old tricks again in the new Aurora/Horizon Theatre co-production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Simon Stephens’ acclaimed stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel. This time, all of the projected special effects seem to serve the material more fittingly, insofar as the protagonist is an autistic British teenager who lives in a contemporary fantasy world, prone to awestruck ruminations about space travel, state-of-the-art computer programs, and the like.
Co-directed by Horizon artistic director Lisa Adler, the show continues through Oct. 27 at her theater in Atlanta’s Little Five Points district, and it will reopen in January at Anderson’s Lawrenceville venue. Theatergoers familiar with their previously established expertise directing nuanced character studies (her “Time Stands Still” for one, his “Singles in Agriculture” for another) might be surprised by the pronounced knack for in-your-face wizardry they demonstrate here—notwithstanding that “Eden” debacle.
There’s nothing remotely nuanced about the leading character in “Curious Incident,” an unruly young math-whiz-turned-amateur detective named Christopher, who initially sets out to investigate the killing of a neighbor’s dog, and eventually embarks on a journey that takes him from the quaint suburb of Swindon, England to the bustling metropolis of London.
The potential exists in that the kid's "behavioral problems" can grate on one's nerves, understandably enough. The role occasionally recalls those played by Russell Crowe in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" or Sean Penn in "I Am Sam"—great performances, to be sure, but because they're such well-known actors, you were always keenly aware of their acting.
In "Curious Incident," the directors wisely cast a newcomer on the local scene as Christopher. Brandon Michael Mayes, a recent graduate of Brenau University, works up quite a sweat, and unless you happen to have seen any of his college productions with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, you could easily wonder about the possibility that he is autistic. He's not, presumably, but that's how completely and convincingly he seems to lose himself in the part.
Among the principal members of the supporting ensemble: Christopher Hampton portrays his exasperated single father, a highly problematic role for reasons that shouldn’t be divulged here; Megan Dominy appears as his mysteriously absent mother; and Candy McLellan is a sympathetic teacher who encourages him to keep a journal about his various adventures, and helps him narrate the story for the audience. LaLa Cochran, Jimi Kocina, Brian Kurlander and Yvonne Singh round out the cast.
The play somewhat overextends its welcome. By the second act, the magical sense of wonder so elaborately embellished by Cordero’s projections (and so intricately evoked in designer Mary Parker’s lighting) finally gives way to a much less remarkable domestic drama about Christopher and his estranged parents—replete with an obligatory happy ending involving a pivotal math exam, and even the introduction of a precious little puppy.
Despite all the special effects of a technical nature, the dramatic effect, in the end, feels curiously incidental, essentially grounding a lot of the show's preceding flights of fancy.
MORE ON AJC: accessAtlanta Podcast: Everything you need to know about theater season in Atlanta
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”
Through Oct. 27. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays (excluding Oct. 19); 5 p.m. Sundays. $32-$40. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-584-7450, horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: A marvel of technique.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com