Eliott Purcell readies The Curious Incident for SpeakEasy Stage
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time isn’t just one of the biggest nonmusical Broadway hits in recent memory, but rather of the last decade. Running for almost 800 performances and winning five Tony Awards, The Curious Incident is the longest-running Broadway play since 2000’s Proof.
The novel by Mark Haddon was already a beloved mega-bestseller by the time that it was adapted for the stage by playwright Simon Stephens and premiered in 2012 at London’s Royal National Theatre. Unlike most page-to-stage adaptations, The Curious Incident was praised and embraced for not only the technical marvels that gave the play its shimmer, but also for the ways in which audiences were able to see the events of the play unfold as sensationally as its 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher. (It is notable that, prior to Stephen’s success with the play, The Curious Incident was dubbed “unadaptable.”)
Christopher Boone is a mathematical genius that becomes fixated on finding out who is responsible for the slaying of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. What begins as simple sleuth work (interviewing neighbors and such) turns into a wide-ranging and deeply personal adventure story of one boy’s search for the truth. Although never explicitly diagnosed in the play, Christopher has some sort of autism spectrum disorder that not only adds a fascinating layer to the story but also puts one hell of a set of demands on the actor playing him.
Boston audiences got a taste of what made The Curious Incident the sensation of both New York and London when the national tour rolled through the Boston Opera House last spring, but the show is now being reimagined anew by SpeakEasy Stage Company in an intimate staging, nearly in the round, that will run through Nov 25 at the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion. Paul Daigneault, who directed last season’s incredible production of The Scottsboro Boys, is at the helm.
And if the name Eliott Purcell is not yet familiar to the vast majority of Boston theatergoers, I suspect that’s about to change. Purcell plays Christopher in SpeakEasy’s production, and over the last several seasons he has emerged as one of the most promising young talents on Boston stages.
A 2014 graduate from Boston College, Purcell made his professional acting debut in the Huntington Theatre Company’s exceptional 2012 revival of Our Town. Purcell, now 25, had been interested in acting since the age of 14, but it wasn’t until his junior year at BC that he considered it a viable career choice.
“When I went to college there was sort of a mind of, oh, I should get a ‘real job,’” said Purcell. He spent two years at BC on the pre-law track before he fell in with the theater department and began to reevaluate his situation. “I was taking business law classes my sophomore year of college, and I remember so distinctly having 6 am to 2 am days. Once we hit 2 in the morning I would go to a quick rehearsal for the directing scene classes. I would have done 50 things that day already: written briefs, went to work, had class, done more writing, and then as soon as I got into that rehearsal my body would just wake up. I thought, ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to do this. It seems to be the only thing I want to do.’”
Although the decision to change tracks came before Our Town, it was his experience on that show that fortified his theatrical convictions. Of his time with Our Town, Purcell says that he felt like the luckiest person in Boston. “It was just the luckiest thing ever for me, and it made me love it even more,” he said. “And then the directors I’ve gotten to work with: David Gammons (on Hand to God), Bevin O’Gara (on appropriate), and now Paul Daigneault—you say ‘actor’s dream,’ I think I’m living it. It’s kind of unexpected.”
Purcell made a big impression in a small role in SpeakEasy’s 2015 production of appropriate, but it wasn’t until Hand to God earlier this year that he arrived as a leading man. (He earned an Elliot Norton Award nomination for his performance.) “Between that and Curious,” he said, “there’s this weird sense of almost being an imposter. Like, wait, am I really doing these things? All of it is filling me with life.”
The role of Christopher isn’t just one of daunting physicality (Broadway’s Alex Sharp sustained several injuries during his tenure with the show) but also one that requires a sensitive hand to ensure that there is nothing problematic about an actor essentially pretending to be on the spectrum. To that end, there are several consultants on board who can help navigate those waters.
“It’s been very research heavy, and I’ve been lucky to talk to people who have been helping to share their stories so that we can tell the story with a mark of sensitivity,” said Purcell. But it is the challenge, it turns out, that ignites him.
“There’s a lot of faith being put on my shoulders for this,” he said. “I’m really only interested in challenging, fun, demanding roles. If it’s not hard work it’s not as fun. I’m really lucky to have these couple pieces that are challenging what I can do as an actor. It’s going to be a wild ride and I really hope that we’re able to bring people along on it.”
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. THROUGH 11.25 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM