“The Sound Inside” is a dark drama by Adam Rapp that keeps us in the dark, literally and figuratively, which works better while watching it on stage than thinking about it afterwards. Mary-Louise Parker portrays a middle-aged Yale professor named Bella Lee Baird, who prefers literature to life, and expects to die soon; she tells us she’s been diagnosed with cancer. Bella slowly develops a friendship with 18-year-old Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman), one of the students in her course, Reading Fiction for Craft. Christopher is initially off-putting in his idiosyncrasies, barging into her office without having made an appointment because he refuses to use e-mail. He rants about e-mail and Twitter and “plutocrat professors” and “baristas with their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor…” But he tells her he likes her class, and he may be even more of a loner than she is.
They turn out to share a taste in books, especially dark tales like Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” which is one of so many book titles name-dropped during the course of the play that the script could serve as a reading list (See below.) They also read aloud from their own writing. Bella, she tells us, has had three books of fiction published.
In a way, “The Sound Inside” is Bella’s writing too. She’s the narrator, but every now and then she stops to jot down something she’s just said to us, as if to make sure to remember that turn of phrase for the book. Indeed, the way the two characters speak sounds so frequently like formal writing that they call one another on it. After they have become friendlier, Christopher asks Bella why she’s not with anybody, and she answers that she’s been looking for somebody to read books with. “That sounds like writing,” Christopher responds. She repeats the accusation back at him a few moments later, after he talks about his own limited romantic history.
“The Sound Inside” is a play about writers, and a story about storytelling, but its appeal is largely due to two factors that save it from complete preciousness. First, it is also a suspenseful yarn, a tale that keeps us wondering what will happen next, full of foreboding about life-and-death matters involving terminal disease, murder, suicide and assisted suicide – some of which are in the stories they create, some in the story that unfolds about Bella and Christopher on stage. ”You have yourself a nice amount of dread simmering,” Bella observes after Christopher has read from his novella; she could be talking about the play she’s in.
What’s best about “The Sound Inside” is its exquisite staging. Director David Cromer (The Band’s Visit, Our Town,etc.) has done it again, using a devotion to detail and a spare touch to create a credible and involving world. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert deserves special kudos for aiding both the suspense and the sense of intimacy, often illuminating only the playing area immediately around the actors, which has the practical effect of turning the huge stage of Studio 54 into something that feels closer to the small space where the two-hander originated last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
“The Sound Inside” marks the Broadway debut of Adam Rapp, but he’s more Bella than Christopher in age and accomplishment — a novelist, director, and screenwriter, he’s been a prolific Off-Broadway playwright for some two decades (as well as the older brother of “Rent” actor Anthony Rapp for five.)
In Bella, he’s created a character that’s a gift to Mary-Louise Parker, who re-gifts her to the audience in a performance that charms with wry, self-deprecating humor and chills with a tale told at a remove, as if Bella is talking about a character in a story rather than about herself. (Hochman holds his own as Christopher, a more complicated character, since he’s viewed through Bella, who considers him an enigma.)
But Rapp also suggests he has created something larger and deeper than simply an engrossing story. How else to understand all those references to great literature, and the many moments that are inexplicable, unexplained? At one point, Bella tells us that, while participating in a writing exercise that she’s assigned her students, she finds herself writing “Listen to the sound inside” over and over again for 20 minutes.
Rather than just telling us that she wrote it over and over again, though, she repeats the sentence, slowly, 12 times, while her sprawled sentences on a legal pad are projected in close-up onto the backdrop.
Such moments add a theatrical sense of mystery, a feeling of heft. But they later lead to questions: Does she mean her stomach cancer? Does she mean her conscience? Is he just being pretentious?
“I have no idea what it means,” Bella tells us.
Chris and Bella’s reading list
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
The Wild Palms by William Faulkner
Light Years by James Salter
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Watt by Samuel Beckett
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Click on any photograph by Jeremy Daniels to see it enlarged
The Sound Inside
Written by Adam Rapp; Directed by David Cromer
Scenic design by Alexander Woodward, costume design by David Hyman, lighting design by Heather Gilbert, original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger, projection design by Aaron Rhyne
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $49 to $169. “Mobile rush” on TodayTix: $39