New York City Theater
"The Sound Inside"
Although David Cromer is listed as director of Adam Rapp’s mesmerizing “The Sound Inside,” he might just as well be credited with co-authorship. His staging is so incisive, so provocative that the drama, which stars a radiant Mary-Louise Parker, benefits mightily from his work.
This is a mysterious play, not in the sense of a crime story, but because it probes the deep, unknowable insides of mind and heart that don’t cohere with what’s outside. “Listen to the sound inside” says Bella (Parker) over and over as she puzzles out thoughts and feelings she’s repressed.
Describing herself as “unremarkable . . . perhaps four or five degrees beyond mediocre, also known as ‘sneakily attractive,’” the solitary Bella has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and is buoyed by re-reading her favorite book, James Salter’s “Light Years.” A minor author herself, she has published two volumes of short stories and “an unappreciated novel”
As a Yale English professor, she teaches “Reading Fiction for Craft.” Required of Creative Writing majors, in the course students analyze the methods authors use to achieve results.
What upends her life is Christopher (Will Hochman), one of her students, equally alone, mistrustful of computers and email, preferring the typewriter and penmanship. An example of playwright Rapp’s brilliant dialogue is having Christopher expound on drinking coffee: “It’s the baristas who really freak me out. With their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor and those stupid fucking doorknobs in their ears. They’re like these New Age, unshowered, tatted-out Hobbits. A life spent perfecting the intricacies of carefully crafted foam art.”
When the class gets to a scene in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Christopher blurts out, “Someday I’m going to write a moment like that.” Indeed, he starts writing a novella with the title, “To Lie Facedown in a Field Full of Snow.”
Requesting that Bella critique his work leads to a non-romantic friendship. (Bella quotes Dostoyevsky’s “Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once.”) Reinforcing the play’s literary qualities, Bella keeps track of her experiences by writing notes on an ever-present pad, observing her life while living it.
Parker is sensational, a performance without ticks, non-judgmental and honest. It’s her best since “Proof.” The excellent Hochman invests the ambiguous Christopher with unpredictable danger.
In addition to Cromer’s fine-tuned direction are Alexander Woodward’s ghostly set design and Heather Gilbert’s dramatic lighting. Add David Hyman’s costumes, Daniel Kluger’s music and sound and Aaron Rhyne’s evocative projections. On the surface, “The Sound Inside” could be a realistic play about caring teacher and talented student, but what we have builds that template into a haunting evening of theater.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 5, 2019