THE SOUND INSIDE, near perfect in its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 2018, is even better on Broadway. (I’ve posted my original review below). I was skeptical that the play, which transacts so intimately, could maintain its intimacy in the move from the “black-box” nature of the smallish Nikos Stage to the wide, Broadway stage of the grand-style of Studio 54. Adam Rapp’s sublime and intricate text prevails; THE SOUND Inside IS a playwright’s play, as much as it is a storyteller’s story. In New York, director David Cromer, who helmed at Williamstown, imbues it with a richer subtlety that, ironically, enhances the intimacy even on a larger stage. Cromer so exquisitely calibrates movement of the minimalist sets, the recesses speak volumes. With the gentle, dark lighting scheme of Heather Gilbert and the lightest touch of music by Daniel Kluger, this Broadway version emerges with a dreamlike quality.
Bella Baird, lonely middle age Yale English prof with terminal cancer, relates her story as memory play - or is she retelling a story, or is she writing a story? The ambiguities don’t just hover in this version of “The Sound Inside”, they inhabit Bella’s tale, and weave in and out seamlessly of her mind that playwright Rapp entraps us in. Mary Louise Parker is perfect for the role of Bella and the role is perfect for Mary Louise Parker. Will Hochman, as he did at Williamstown, plays Christopher, the college student whom Bella tutors then befriends. His, too, is a singular performance, most remarkable for how natural , unsophisticated it is in effect. I averred summer before last that THE SOUND INSIDE was one of the best plays written in the last ten years. After seeing the New York production, that’s still the case.
ORIGINAL REVIEW, July 8, 2018, of the premiere production at Williamstown Theatre Festival
It’s challenging to recall a new play in recent memory that is more finely constructed and beautifully composed than Pulitzer-finalist Adam Rapp’s astonishing THE SOUND INSIDE. Add on the exquisitely sensitive direction by Tony-winner David Cromer and two perfectly contoured performances by the accomplished Mary Louise Parker and newcomer Will Hochman and what’s been premiered at Williamstown is a work of theatre often aspired to but seldom achieved.
Bella Baird is an undistinguished (an early novelist career fizzled out) but tenured professor of literature at Yale, who teaches creative writing. She’s a creature of the academy and a solitary, relationshipless life. Shortly after she's diagnosed with stomach cancer, Christopher, a complicated young student of uneven emotional disposition, seeks advice on his fledgling, perhaps autobiographical, novel.
With this premise, Rapp has written a play that is as remarkable for the story it tells, as it is for how it tells the story. The play opens as a memory play, Bella telling us she’s going to tell a story of a woman and wondering what people will make of it. Her personal history and events between her and Christopher emerge when they sometimes narrate, facing the audience, what is happening, shifting back then out again, to what’s really enfolding in the scene.
The details of how Bella deals with her illness and how that relates to Christopher is gripping narrative, with a stunning conclusion, but most compelling about THE SOUND INSIDE is how the subtext drives the drama. Bella’s detached, avoiding conflict, emotionally inert from her own prospective personal crisis, yet with a writer's curiosity and hunger for detail sees in Christopher and his developing novel conflict and tragedy. She has no need for a relationship, yet she engages Christopher in a most consequential way. Is there a story without another? Bella, the constant observer, is always describing what she observes, taking notes, writing them down. Is it truer when a written word? Is it more real? THE SOUND INSIDE is profoundly a playwright’s play. It’s as much about how we tell stories about ourselves as it is about what happens to Bella and Christopher.
Director Cromer appropriately leaves a lot of the story in the dark on a barely lit stage, on which, rolled on and off, a two-sided small set box doubles as Bella’s cramped office and tired apartment. Just as Rapp shifts the parallax of storytelling, so does Cromer move the set to peculiar spots sometimes down, sometimes upstage, out of kilter. Cromer lets the playwright’s words speak for themselves - and the silences too.
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