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Theatre in Review: The Sound Inside (Studio 54)

Will Hochman, Mary-Louise Parker. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

At first glance, The Sound Inside appears to be an overtly literary piece, an evening of writers talking about writing; you haven't heard so much book chat onstage since the last revival of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories. A tightly controlled two-hander that is heavily reliant on atmosphere, it initially comes across as a short story for the theatre. In fact, it is a work of considerable trickery, and not always to its advantage. Whether you are willing to be captivated by Adam Rapp by such depend heavily on how you react to The Sound Inside's singularly spiky characters and plot manipulations.

Mary-Louise Parker stars as Bella, a writer with a résumé of three minor volumes, including a novel that, she notes, "despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay in print." Bella has a cushy job teaching writing at Yale; she is also the most unencumbered of women, being the only child of deceased parents with no spouse, children, or romantic interests and few, if any, friends. She lives in faculty housing, where she indulges her only passion, collecting first editions of books. No abbess ever lived a more ascetic life.

So imbued with the of love of prose is Bella that she often speaks like the authorial voice of a New Yorker story. Describing herself in the third person as "your narrator," she adds, "In that thorny, subjective bureau of classification known as the Looks Department, if she's being brutally honest with herself, she'd say she's perhaps four or five degrees beyond mediocre, also known as 'sneakily attractive.' She is the equivalent of a collectible plate mounted to a wall." A little of this goes a long way; it is entirely to Parker's credit that she makes such attention-grabbing dialogue seem like the honest product of her character's well-honed mind.

Two things throw Bella's predictable life into profound disarray. First, Christopher, a freshman in one of her classes, starts showing up at her office without making an appointment. (The fastidious Bella, a stickler for departmental procedures, disapproves.) He is the kind of overly sensitive, wildly quirky youth who tends to exist only in writers' imaginations -- think Holden Caulfield in pursuit of a BFA. First, he announces that he detests email, preferring written messages, in part because he can make little doodles in the margins -- "just the occasional escaped circus clown playing with a naked toddler or two." (Nothing to worry about there, is there?) And don't even mention Twitter, which he decries as "the mother of mental syphilis!" Next comes a tirade against baristas. In other words, he is an eighteen-year-old fitted out with a full set of irritations more native to men in their fifties. He is also highly excitable, and, falling into an argument with Bella, ends it by spitting on her floor.

Rather than call campus security, Bella strikes up a friendship with Christopher, who remains resolutely enigmatic. For example, although he is obviously strapped for cash -- braving the early-winter weather with a thin jacket -- he insists that his mother, who he refuses to name, is a reclusive mystery novelist. He is also writing a novel, the plot of which he reveals in tiny installments. Perhaps Bella's judgment is clouded by her second destabilizing event: It's not be giving anything away to report that she is gravely ill with Stage II stomach cancer; she admits so this early on, adding the grisly details of her mother's death from a related illness, which informs her horror of chemotherapy. Unable to face treatment, she makes a stunning request of Christopher; I don't think I should reveal it, but it represents an extraordinary burden to put on an obviously unstable young man of her limited acquaintance -- even if they share a love of books and she has opened herself up to him somewhat. This request cues a series of plot reversals that, admittedly, you are unlikely to anticipate, and which keep The Sound Inside lively, if not always convincing.

Indeed, if one of her students submitted The Sound Inside as a class assignment, Bella would surely get out a red pen to highlight the plot's many implausibilities. For openers, in the current social climate, when college campuses are rife with lawsuits and rules abound regarding inappropriate faculty behavior, how likely is it that Bella would so quickly befriend Christopher -- taking him out to dinner and home for drinks, and, even more surprising, letting him spend the night on her couch? It's not just that their friendship is a lawsuit waiting to happen; that spitting incident should set off alarm bells, along with Christopher's reluctance to reveal the most basic details about himself. Then there's the matter of his novel, an astonishing achievement for an adolescent, written in a matter of weeks: It's a chilling account, in the manner of Patricia Highsmith, of a casual male acquaintanceship that ends in a seemingly random murder. It is loaded with details from Christopher's life, leaving one nervously wondering exactly how fictional it is -- although, by this time, Rapp's machinations have become all too apparent.

This kind of low-temperature exercise in creeping dread is certainly well within David Cromer's wheelhouse and his direction is responsible in no small part for keeping The Sound Inside watchable. Parker gives one of her best performances, presenting a steely attitude and poker face to the world, facing the ugly facts of her mother's death with clinical detachment, but subtly and by degrees warming up to Christopher -- who, she senses, is a kindred spirit, as solitary and book-obsessed as she. Given a character constructed out of a dozen ill-explained details and made to face off against a formidable leading lady, Will Hochman acquits himself impressively, keeping one guessing as to exactly how honest, and sane, he really is; he makes convincing the character's febrile passion for good writing, even if he has seemingly never heard of anyone younger than David Foster Wallace.

Cromer's designers have also come up with an eerily effective concept, setting the action in a dark void, out of which emerge wagons bearing minimally detailed sets by Alexander Woodward. Its effect depends heavily on Heather Gilbert's pinpoint lighting and Aaron Rhyne's black-and-white projections -- of winter trees and lines of prose, among others - to create a disturbingly dreamlike atmosphere. David Hyman's costumes and Daniel Kluger's original music and sound are also fine contributions.

But the production is dogged by a certain awkwardness, thanks to the script's oddly hybrid nature. For example, Hochman is sometimes made to stand stock-still while Parker, addressing the audience, describes a scene between Bella and Christopher. There is a reason for this -- Bella is at work, scribbling on a legal pad and assembling the narrative we are seeing -- but it makes for some stilted moments onstage. You may also find yourself put off by the play's rather studied dolor, especially its use of cancer as a plot device, a McGuffin in the Alfred Hitchcock sense. God knows, writing is hard, and many of the greatest names have paid a high price for their accomplishments -- but does this insight justify such an airless exercise? --David Barbour

(25 October 2019)

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