“The Sound Inside” by Adam Rapp and directed by David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), currently on Broadway at Studio 54, feels like a well executed writing exercise that transformed into a delicate and sensitive play.
It stars Mary-Louise Parker as Bella, a Yale English professor who has fallen into an almost transcendental state of apathy toward her life. She teaches her courses, she drinks her wine, and she grades her papers. She has no serious friends, lovers, or aspirations.
Parker is wonderful. She plays Bella with a painful awkwardness. She evokes Bella’s brilliant mind, but also the perpetual depression she rests under as a middle aged woman who has not achieved any of her dreams. What she does do is write. Bella is a published author, granted her novel was published decades prior and was slammed by the New York Times Book Review, so it never saw success.
Much of “The Sound Inside” is told in first person past tense from Bella’s perspective and whenever she feels she has a strikingly poignant thought, she rushes over to her yellow legal pad and jots down the statement for posterity, maybe in the hopes of using it in her next literary venture, if she ever has one.
Heather Gilbert’s lighting is beautifully simple and effective – even though there was some sloppy cable swag around the proscenium – on Alexander Woodward’s mostly minimal set. Simple, soft white lighting focuses tight on the actors and the compact set pieces, giving a sense of clouded memory as Bella remembers her story of her and her creative writing student, Christopher (Will Hochman). Christopher is reclusive also, but finds inspiration in Bella’s teaching and he brings to Bella a novel he’s working on for her analysis and the two build an unlikely friendship.
Hochman is great as well. He captures Christopher’s sad, pathetic awkwardness, with a stirring undercurrent of hidden anger, frustration, and brilliance of his own.
Thankfully, Rapp avoids clichéd plot contrivances. Though there is a sexual tension between the two, there isn’t romance, something I found refreshing as their relationship builds and Bella confides in him that she has cancer. She has told the audience at the top of the show. The intimacy between the two is deeper than if Rapp lingered on surface emotions.
Of interest is Rapp’s use of meta-textual language and how it develops the plot. Each time Bella speaks about one of her lectures in class, she and Christopher develop in a way that reflects that lesson. For example, she tells her students to write a scene of violence, as graphic as they can imagine. It translates not only once into Christopher’s novel, but also into their lives, giving commentary on the method and its effectiveness in Rapp’s own writing.
This kind of storytelling happens several times in “The Sound Inside.” It’s an effective device when done well. It feels like Rapp was doing an exercise in meta-textual storytelling — and succeeds in doing it — without falling into satire. Instead, Rapp gives us a sensitive story of two people crying out for help in the echo chamber of academia and miraculously hearing each other. When the play reaches its devastating conclusion, Rapp doesn’t play toward sympathy. Instead he addresses something more sincere and sensitive that goes beyond the trite and trivial. He invokes self-reflection and a measurement of self-worth.
The Sound Inside
254 W. 54th St., New York
Written by Adam Rapp; Directed by David Cromer; Scenic Design by Alexander Woodward; Costume Design by David Hyman; Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert; Music and Sound by Daniel Kluger; Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne
Show times: Evening: Tuesday through Thursday 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. Matinee: Wednesday and Saturday 2 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. Schedule may change.
Tickets: $49 to $169. Available online at www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200, or at the box office
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker (Bella), Will Hochman (Christopher)