Tampa Rep conquers a nearly impossible challenge in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

The key for director Emilia Sargent was finding JJ Humphrey.

click to enlarge JJ Humphrey (L) and Cranston Cumberbatch in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' at Tampa Repertory Theatre in Tampa, Florida. - Tampa Repertory Theatre
Tampa Repertory Theatre
JJ Humphrey (L) and Cranston Cumberbatch in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' at Tampa Repertory Theatre in Tampa, Florida.
In almost all ways, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'' marks a step forward for Tampa Repertory Theatre. Small professional theatres are nearly always challenged for the resources to assemble a cast that’s uniformly solid across the entire ensemble. Directors often make up for such inequities by punching up dialogue (erroneously) in an effort to balance talent. However, particularly in the small houses that dominate our theatre scene, the late Stephen Sondheim’s axiom that “less is more” seems elusive. I often remark to my theatergoing companions that I just wish the actors would “do less.” In drama school, we defined over-acting as “emotion in excess of technique.” Too many actors feel compelled to “perform,” calling attention to themselves in broad strokes or obvious choices, when restraint through contrast or surprise, will rivet an audience’s attention instead.

The key for director Emilia Sargent was finding JJ Humphrey, a neurodivergent actor self-described as “fun, quirky, energetic.” What he may lack in Juilliard training, he more than makes up for in authenticity. This “bucket list” role calls upon his own life experience as he embarks on the journey to tell the coming of age story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who is determined to solve the vicious killing of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, by investigating à la his hero Sherlock Holmes. Humphrey’s journey is compelling and his joy during the surprise after the curtain call is palpable. Be sure to stay in your seats.
Christopher compares his own brain to a computer that is easily overloaded by multitasking. He has a photographic memory and is capable of working out complicated math problems in his head, but he’s so overwhelmed by any unfamiliar stimuli that he shuts down regularly—holding his hands over his ears while he screams. He has trouble processing metaphors, which he considers lies. He experiences love through his connections to animals. Simple tasks, like asking for directions or riding an escalator, are overwhelming to him unless he can imagine them as logical mathematical equations.

The play’s original production was directed by Marianne Elliott (“War Horse,” “Angels in America,” and the new, not-to-be-missed gender-swapped “Company”), who is arguably the most consequential director of our time. She had the budget and collaborators to dramatize Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel in the most dazzling Broadway production of a straight play I’ve experienced from hundreds over the decades. I knew only too well that Tampa Rep had given themselves an enormous, nearly impossible challenge, to put us inside Christopher’s brain. But, Sargent and her team pull it off.

The versatile acting ensemble made up of Imani Alvarado, Larry Corwin, Donna Delonay, Kristina Kourkoulos, Ryan-Patrick McLaughlin, and Michael Silvestri inhabits a glorious array of quirky characters who help drive the narrative—from nosy neighbors to drunks to policemen to a punk girl on the street. They are helpfully differentiated by Mary Kraak’s costumes. Often they also serve as observers sitting on the moveable, multi-use cubes that surround the action. Still, there are times when ensemble members italicize moments unnecessarily. But in general, Sargent has a tight rein on her cast and provides compelling visuals to reinforce the cacophony, which is life for the neurodivergent Christopher. His maiden train voyage into London’s alien metropolis becomes a virtuoso study in sensory overload. Throughout the evening, set and video designer Jim Sorensen, lighting designer Cody Basham, and sound designer Georgia Mallory Guy assault our senses with lights, noises, street signs, and road maps that just keep coming at you.

Calle Gardner, in particular, stands out as Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan (shiv-AWN). She narrates the story from Christopher’s notebook and is the anchor of trusted advice that he needs to thrive. Cranston Cumberbatch and Marie-Claude Tremblay are also solid as Christopher’s conflicted parents, Ed and Judy Boone, whose actions call into question profound issues of honesty and trust. The colorblind casting of the BIPOC Mr. Cumberbatch as Christopher’s father, could raise some questions since Mr. Humphrey is not bi-racial. Particularly in the charged environment following BLM-police encounters, this choice may skew several incidents to be seen with a racial lens not in the original script. It’s not a huge problem, but it does provide several scenes with new tension complicating the narrative.

Dialect Coach Christopher Marshall has done a splendid job drilling the company in a range of dialects from lilting Irish to Jamaican Patois. My British companion had a few quibbles, but the actors’ speech was relaxed and didn’t call undue attention to itself. That alone is a remarkable achievement while making the dialogue completely intelligible.

One special note is that the Tampa Rep and Think Tank Theatre (creating “progressive” plays for young adults) production features “relaxed performances” curated for special needs families and their guests, who might have sensory-based issues. This means tailoring lightning and sound cues while giving easy access to the lobby by leaving the theater doors open and keeping the house lights on low.

In these troubled times, when our country is so divided politically and we retreat into tribal factions, civility is a forgotten virtue. What this play reminds us is that all every living human really wants is love and acceptance. And that road is paved with kindness and, most of all, unceasing empathy.

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Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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