Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 17, 2019
The Sound Inside 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. Cast: Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman.
The Sound Inside is about as literary as a play can get. Its two characters are Bella, a Yale creative writing professor (a quietly constrained and masterful portrayal by Mary-Louise Parker), and one of her students (Will Hochman, an opposing, obstreperous presence).
As Bella, Ms. Parker's fluidly moves about the vast space of the Studio 54 stage (Heather Gilbert's lighting design is a godsend in this) shifting seamlessly from lecture mode with us sitting in on her seminar, to jotting down ideas and words she doesn't want to lose, to reading aloud from a notepad she always keeps at hand. That "sound inside" is never far from her, and the world of writing and books pretty much defines her entire life.
Mr. Hochman is Christopher, a student who barges into Bella's office without an appointment, a no-no in the formal structure of Yale's English Department. He seems eager to talk, yet he is so full of ideas he is unable to make his purpose clear. While Bella may feel mildly threatened by his unpredictability, his "dread" as she calls it, she also appreciates his youthful exuberance and his hesitant confession that he is writing a novel. It has been, after all, nearly two decades since she has published her two collections of short stories and a single novel, and she is thrilled to mentor him though the process.
A great deal of their dialog centers on the art and discipline involved in writing, or on drawing examples from literary giants like Bella's beloved Dostoevsky and his novel "Crime and Punishment," the theme of which wafts through the play and touches down at a key moment of uncertainty, on whose meaning Bella and we can only conjecture. This is a play that invites speculation without ever feeling the need to feed us answers. Rely on your own "sound inside" to motivate interpretation, it seems to say. My own thoughts at this key moment, for example, turned to a specific short story by a different writer, J. D. Salinger, possibly because his "The Catcher in the Rye" is mentioned in the play and Adam Rapp has planted the seed.
For the record, and perhaps with Mr. Rapp's subliminal prodding, I also thought at various times of the plays Wit, Oleanna, and Deathtrap. The extent to which any of these hypothesized connections pans out is something I will not discuss here, but if you are paying attention, you'll come up with your own. As for what ensues in terms of the specific plot elements, it probably would be best for me to be somewhat enigmatic myself. Minimally, I will say this much about Bella: She shares a little bit about her modest social life, matter-of-factly discloses her battle with a serious illness, and has to come to grips with the manuscript that Christopher consigns to her. As for Christopher himself, we are simply left with questions that are likely never to be answered, like the ellipsis with which he ends his own piece of writing.
As Christopher, Will Hochman is there to serve as a foil and prod to Bella, and in that, he does a fine job. But, really, the quality of the production rests on Mary-Louise Parker's shoulders. Happily, under David Cromer's unfussy, unassertive direction, this is one of her best performances ever. Her Bella is fully realized, a woman who is self-aware, happy to live on her own with just few casual friends, her students, and an anonymous acquaintance or two (she mentions a regular tennis date with a colleague but can't quite recall her name). She is content in a career choice that fits her like a glove, and she is able to face even dire news with equanimity. Only in the end is she left with a conundrum to puzzle out, as are we.
Broadway is home to plenty of loud and brassy musicals, lightly-scripted songfests, and shows aimed at teenagers and younger audiences. The Sound Inside, like the recent Sea Wall/A Life, is a play for adults who are looking for a theatrical experience that gives them plenty to think about during and after the performance. To that, I say bravo!