The Sound Inside
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“By the way, not knowing what’s going to happen is a good thing. If your protagonist is leading you then you’ll likely stay ahead of your reader,” Yale creative writing teacher and semi-successful author Bella (Mary-Louise Parker) tells Christopher (Will Hochman in a memorable Broadway debut), her overly inquisitive, deeply troubled student and, yes, aspiring novelist, early on in “The Sound Inside,” now at Studio 54. But this piece of useful advice for writers soon proves to be more than just another line of trenchant dialogue
In fact, we quickly come to realize how well playwright Adam Rapp has taken his own words to heart in this remarkably intense and gorgeously written play – perhaps the finest in his long career. I suspect that even the most seasoned theatergoer is unlikely to guess the eventual fates of either character in this gripping, twisty two-hander.
But more than being a mystery play of sort, “The Sound Inside” serves as both a well-crafted study about the difficulty of making a human connection and a testament to the power of great writing to keep us entranced and intrigued. And it’s not just Rapp’s liquid prose I am referring to (beautiful as it can be); both characters adore literature, and their frequent discussions on the subject (especially the intricacies of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”) may thrill some audience members (and perhaps bore others).
The play is narrated in large part by the 53-year-old Bella – in both past and present tense – as she details her lonely life at Yale, her struggle with a tragic illness, and her rather unusual relationship with Christopher, a similarly lost soul also prone to both occasional fits of rage and moments of surprising tenderness. For reasons that eventually become clear (or so I think), Rapp has specifically constructed much of “The Sound Inside” as a tell-not-show piece. But whether Bella is what one calls a “reliable narrator” ultimately comes into question.
The play initially seems like it’s landed on the wrong planet – or at least in the wrong theater – and I would love to see this small-scale work in a tiny house like Rattlestick or MTC II. But as the brilliant Tony Award-winning director David Cromer most recently proved with “The Band’s Visit,” he knows how to create an intimate atmosphere even in these larger-than-necessary surroundings, and he is aided immeasurably in his mission by the ingenious set designer Alexander Woodward, projection designer Aaron Rhyne, and, above all, lighting designer Heather Gilbert, who knows exactly how and when to keep us in the dark or shine a light on the proceedings.
Still, the production’s ultimate success depends on the skill of its two actors. If Hochman has the showier role, it’s Parker who turns in an award-worthy performance, eschewing the flightiness and kookiness that have often defined her best-known work (and were perfect for parts like Harper Pitt in “Angels in America” or Rachel in “Reckless”). Her beautifully understated, deeply felt portrayal of Bella grounds the play in its own reality, even if one can possibly argue about how “real” what we’ve seen on stage turns out to be.
If by some chance, you’re wondering what the sound inside Studio 54 is when the final scene of this taut 90-minute work is over; that’s one spoiler I’m willing to give away – hushed silence followed by thunderous applause.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019