A character sitting down to write a piece of fiction is one of the least dramatic subjects of all time. James Lapine learned that with his stage adaptation of “Act One,” and he had the advantage of his subject being a famous person, Moss Hart, writing a big comedy destined for Broadway.
Adam Rapp gives himself a far more difficult assignment with his new play, “The Sound Inside,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Studio 54 after a run last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Here, a middle-aged Yale creative-writing professor (Mary-Louise Parker) is teaching a freshman student (Will Hochman) how to write fiction. She has published a novel and a few short story collections; he’s working on his first novel, which, at only a little over 100 pages, turns out to be a novella instead. Even less dramatically promising, they discuss the plots of their respective works, and occasionally read aloud snippets of their fiction.
“The Sound Inside” is absolutely riveting theater.
Bella and Christopher are an odd couple, but as Rapp peels back their respective life stories, these opposites attract. Along the way, they also verbally spar, repel, flirt,and take turns at being teacher, student, aggressor and object of desire.
Hochman makes an impressive Broadway debut. When we first see him, he is the hothead, obnoxious student who oozes young white male privilege. He never loses that sense of license to push boundaries, but Hochman’s performance manages subtle variations on the theme of entitlement. When it is Bella’s turn to make an outrageous request, Hochman has prepared us for that reversal in their relationship.
Parker exudes heartbreaking fragility on stage. She has portrayed vulnerable characters before, but she tends to wrap them in a protective shell. Due to Bella’s state of health, the usual armor is missing or has been discarded or perhaps destroyed. Bella is frail, but Parker makes sure that the character never comes off as weak. She not only speaks directly to us, she narrates “The Sound Inside,” and occasionally Bella is so happy with one of her observations that she writes it down and stores it away for her next novel, even though she hasn’t written one in 17 years.
If there’s a movie or play that better dramatizes the sound inside a writer’s head and how that stuff ends up as meaningful words on paper, I haven’t seen it.
David Cromer directs his two actors as if they were accomplices in a crime. (It helps that Bella and Christopher repeatedly discuss Dostoevsky and his murderous antihero Raskolnikov.) There’s something bordering on the obscene about many of these chat fests. That the two never get intimate in the physical sense only adds to the overall discomfort. What Bella and Christopher write is far more revealing than anything they tell each other, or do. They can hide from everyone on campus, but not each other.
Rapp’s title is beautifully rendered by Alexander Woodward’s set, Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Daniel Kluger’s music and sound. Their work is dark and deceptively simple, and together with the direction and the performances, they create a truly surreal experience in the theater.
“The Sound Inside” is crammed with the names of famous writers, and Christopher is not immune to making grand, sophomoric pronouncements about them, such as a novelist having to commit suicide to achieve success. Among the usual suspects of Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, he mentions William Inge. Bella disagrees, adding, “And Inge was primarily a playwright, by the way. I think playwrights actually have it harder.” Christopher, as he is prone to do, interrupts her before she can explain. It would be great if Rapp, for his next play, finished that thought.