Sleek, visually spare and populated with hard-working actors, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is in many ways an impressive piece of work from director Marissa Wolf and a potent design team.
The central figure in British playwright Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel is 15-year-old Christopher, a math savant dwelling somewhere on the autism spectrum (although the word “autism” is never uttered). Played by Jamie Sanders, a young New York actor, Christopher is variously endearing, sympathetic, exasperating and awe-inspiring.
Christopher can function if he lives his life a certain way. He can’t stand to be touched, save by his parents, whose physical affection can only be expressed through brief palm-to-palm contact. He doesn’t know how to tell a lie, believes metaphors and acting are essentially dishonest, and often comforts himself when stressed by running multiplication tables or counting prime numbers — a process that apparently could stretch into infinity.
Christopher pours his thoughts, fears and observations into a notebook, which he also employs as he gathers information in an effort to find out who murdered a neighborhood dog with a garden fork. His investigative journal takes shape as a sort of detective novel, which Christopher’s sympathetic teacher, Siobhan (Bree Elrod), wants to turn into a play. Thus, the second half of the show becomes, more or less, a play within a play.
Christopher’s father, Ed (the worthy Jason Chanos), alternates between impatience and compassion as he tries to work out a coherent relationship with his son. The folks in the neighborhood (played by a talented ensemble), are hostile or indifferent to Christopher, except for Mrs. Alexander, a kindly neighbor, played with effortless grace and charm by Peggy Friesen.
His father opposes Christopher’s “investigation” for reasons that eventually become clear. And a discovery by Christopher sends him on a train trip from his home in Swindon to London in search of his mother, portrayed vividly by Stephanie Rae Roberts. For a kid on the autism spectrum, this is a daunting experience.
This play was a hit in London and later on Broadway, impressing many with the original show’s immersive scenic and lighting designs. At the Rep. Wolf and her designers don’t go for immersive. Rather, they tend to keep the viewers at arm’s length with a visually striking but initially antiseptic set and performances that impress but never quite achieve the considerable poignancy possible in Stephens’ script. The playwright also offers ample opportunities for laughs, which Wolf and company take full advantage of.
Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado has created a wide, circular playing area backed by a semi-circle of arched entrances. The surfaces are chalky white and scenes are played with a handful of props and no furniture. During the train sequence, we discover that the arches can move, and here Grant Wilcoxen’s dynamic lighting design kicks into high gear, lending an illusion of movement as he bathes the set in reds and blues.
The ensemble actors at times are required to perform choreographed movements, less for thematic purposes than for the sake of visual interest. But each of them — Chioma Anyanwu, Rufus Burns, Walter Coppage, Nicole Marie Green, Andy Perkins and Friesen — bring vivid character details to their brief multiple roles.
As noted, the play’s surface particulars are admirably executed but one essential ingredient is missing: The palpable terror of someone with Asperger’s or the like forcing himself — or being forced — out of his comfort zone. The tone of the show is decidedly light, which minimizes the serious nature of the enterprise.
Still, the story prompts serious consideration of what it means to be on the spectrum. And that’s a good thing.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” runs through Feb. 18 at the Spencer Theatre. 817-235-2700; www.kcrep.org.