Let’s get the positives out of the way first: The Sound Inside, now at Studio 54 after a successful debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, is masterfully acted, directed, and designed. As Bella Lee Baird, a Yale creative writing professor staring down a terminal diagnosis, Mary-Louise Parker exudes the brand of quiet intensity she’s practically patented across her decades-long stage career. Will Hochman matches her admirably in an assured Broadway debut as Christopher Dunn, a mysterious and mercurial freshman who, of course, contains multitudes. The pair project a consistent level of taut, unforced chemistry across the play’s intermissionless 100 minutes.
Director David Cromer also employs his stock and trade, impregnating tiny moments with unspoken but pervasive tension. He benefits from a crack design team — sets by Alexander Woodard, lighting by Heather Gilbert, sound by Daniel Kluger — who excel at making negative space seem both expansive and restrictive at once. The focus of The Sound Inside is fiction, and at its best moments, the production essentially realizes the thrill that comes from reading a good short story, where a combination of style and subtext creep up in tandem to surprise and unsettle the reader (or, in this case, the viewer). Aaron Rhyne’s projections are among the most effectively deployed I’ve ever seen.
Yet I left The Sound Inside feeling both impressed and unsatisfied, and the problem lies primarily with Adam Rapp’s play itself. In an early interaction between teacher and student, Bella tells Christopher that it’s good for a writer to not always know in which direction his characters are heading — if an author gets too far ahead of his characters, the readers will too. Unfortunately, Rapp doesn’t always follow that advice.
After an hour of Bella and Christopher’s literary meet-cute, the action predictably pivots toward darker waters. Rapp’s writing contains a genuine elegance that keeps the proceedings from descending into movie-of-the-week mawkishness, but the script suffers from a different problem — and one common among nascent fictionists: it’s weighed down by the heavy hands of obvious symbolism and foreshadowing. In the platonic courtship that form the play’s early scenes, the pair drop literary names hither and yon, but the one they keep coming back to is Dostoyevsky; Bella is teaching Crime and Punishment in a class called “Reading Fiction for Craft,” in which Christopher is enrolled. (As a sometime creative writing teacher myself, presenting this Russian master as a writing model for teenagers seems like an unwise idea, but that’s a horse of a different color.)
Crime and Punishment thrives on questions of moral ambiguity, shades of misdirection, and the presence of unreliable narrators. All three of these themes assert themselves in the play’s second half, in ways that a veteran theatergoer is bound to recognize a couple paces before Rapp shows his hand. Christopher crafts a novella in which the main character, who may or may not be himself, undertakes duplicitous actions that feel strikingly similar to the behavior of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and the novel’s overall sense of nihilism heavily infuses the road toward this play’s denouement. Many moments remain effective — though I suspect this is due as much to Cromer’s deeply atmospheric staging as anything — but just as often, I felt like I was in the dramaturgical hands of a college student who’s plowed through a course of Great Books and has set out to deploy his favorite literary tricks.
Elsewhere, The Sound Inside occasionally suffers from a lack of substance. For two self-styled word nerds, Bella and Christopher rarely talk about writing or craft in depth; they often let author names stand as bywords for their own sophistication. (I haven’t heard Robert Coover name-checked since a grad-school seminar in postmodernism nearly a decade ago.) Bella is presented as the kind of teacher who retreats to academia after middling success as a commercial author; Christopher becomes obsessed with her sole “underappreciated” novel, but the excerpts of it that he reads to the audience do not suggest a voice of great depth or distinction. Beyond the novel itself, Rapp also doesn’t linger much on what attracts Christopher to Bella — is it simply because she happens to be his teacher that semester? This leaves Parker, Hochman, and Cromer to pick up a lot of slack; they do so admirably, but it cannot compensate for all the holes in the dramaturgical development.
There is also a pervasive, off-putting sense of privilege that largely goes unaddressed throughout the play. The Ivy League setting is no accident, and although Rapp takes some pains to suggest that Bella and Christopher are not to the manor born, each feels grossly pretentious in ways that undercut the more compelling aspects of their characters. Bella’s recounting of a sexual encounter with a contractor she picks up at a bar — in an Econo-Lodge! With Everybody Loves Raymond playing in the background — radiates an icky us vs. them sense of class distinction beneath her utilitarian, artistic facade. Christopher’s rejection of email, fetishization of mid-century typewriters and onion-skin paper, and air of asceticism make him seem like a garden-variety affected undergrad. In some ways, Bella and Christopher are made for each other, since they’re often equally blind to their own grandiloquence.
I should note that effective as Parker often is — the play requires her to hold the stage on her own for long stretches, a task with which she seems totally at ease — there is little sense of surprise in her performance. I first saw this actor on stage in the original production of Proof nearly twenty years ago, and it’s fair to say that her bag of tricks isn’t endlessly deep. What she does, she does well…but if you’ve seen her frequently, you might feel yourself experiencing the law of diminishing returns. (Hochman, a relative newcomer, doesn’t have that problem.)
The play’s title comes from a writing exercise that Bella assigns her class: put pen to paper for twenty minutes, and don’t let the tip leave the page. Write down whatever comes. Participating herself, she finds that she keeps writing the same phrase over and over: “Listen to the sound inside.” She doesn’t know what it means. Even now, I’m not sure I do either.