Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman's Pas De Deux on the Edge in The Sound Inside
A fantastic new play marks the Broadway debut of playwright Adam Rapp.
I love Adam Rapp's The Sound Inside. I love everything about it: the sparseness of Rapp's writing, the stark austerity of director David Cromer's staging, the elegant and commanding performances by Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman.
The idea of The Sound Inside being at Studio 54 worried me. It's a two-character play. The actors don't raise their voices. It's mostly performed in darkness. At the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where I first wrote about it in 2018, it played the intimate Nikos Stage, which has around 170 seats. Studio 54 is nearly six times larger.
What amazed me most about the Broadway version of Rapp's elegiac play is the way it appears to be scaled up without actually being scaled up. The Sound Inside is just as small and quiet and human now as it was then, but it manages to fill the much larger space without losing its intimacy. This is a testament to the skills and talents of Rapp and Cromer, as well as the mesmeric Parker and the irascible Hochman, who prove that all you really need to compel your audience is good acting and directing, and a script that defies expectation even when you're on your second viewing.
Parker is Bella Baird, a creative writing professor at Yale. Never married, her closest thing to a romantic partner is James Salter's novel Light Years. She has published a few books to marginal acclaim and little financial success, lost both parents years ago, and has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
At this point you might guess that The Sound Inside will be similar to Margaret Edson's Wit. But it's not. Once Christopher Dunn (Hochman) enters, all bets are off.
Christopher is a student in Bella's class, a precocious twentysomething who barges into her office and announces that he's writing a novel. The two grow close as Bella takes a liking to Christopher's tenacity and lack of social skills. Christopher sees a mentor in Bella, whose one sort-of famous novel he ordered from a local bookstore in his native Vermont.
"OK," you start to think. "Teacher-student affair." Wrong again.
Rapp, a Pulitzer finalist making a long-awaited Broadway debut, and Tony winner Cromer, a master at theatricalizing isolation, are scrupulous in keeping The Sound Inside several steps ahead of the audience at all times. Textually, the play is a duet, a recited novella that alternates between descriptions and dialogues, often at the same time. It melts form and time and allows both Bella and Christopher to be unreliable narrators in their own stories. Just like the two characters, Rapp's script is always thinking on its feet.
To keep us on our toes, Cromer leaves us in the dark. Alexander Woodward's set, which seems to appear and disappear out of the void, and Heather Gilbert's sepulchral lighting, astonishing in its small accentuations of certain details, bring to mind the bleak grayness of Crime and Punishment, one of the novels in Bella's curriculum. Vanishing projections (Aaron Rhyne), melancholy underscoring (Daniel Kluger), and costumes designed with a sense of heightened realism (David Hyman) match the tone of the play with exacting precision.
Hochman brings a compelling masculine energy to the role of Christopher, a stick of dynamite always on the cusp of blowing. He walks a tightrope without a balancing pole, combining twentysomething angst and pent-up frustration at the world. And he's the yang to Parker's yin. They clearly enjoy their pas de deux on the edge of the void.
Lesser actors would be dwarfed on a stage this size, but not Mary-Louise Parker. Whole stretches of The Sound Inside feature her alone, and she fills Studio 54 with the presence of a singing and dancing ensemble. Bella is an intensely difficult role — like many Rapp protagonists, her emotions range from vulnerable to aloof often in the same sentence — and Parker finds nuance in every syllable. It's the kind of performance that makes you think, "God, she's good."
The Sound Inside is one of those plays that I feel lucky to have seen, and it's one of the best Broadway shows of the year.