A woman stands on the side of the dimly-lit stage, reading her story aloud. It’s about a professor of writing at a prestigious college who has learned that she has a deadly cancer. “The Sound Inside,” written by Pulitzer finalist Adam Rapp and directed by Tony winner David Cromer (“The Band’s Visit”) is 90 minutes of engrossing theater, filled with twists and turns. The play defies expectations as it demands rapt attention and silence.
Bella (Mary Louise Parker) is the brilliant creative writing professor at Yale, and Christopher (Will Hochman making his Broadway debut) is merely one of her students until one day he barges into her office and their relationship and dynamic change. Christopher is not like the other students; he eschews social media, and despite owning a modern computer, is writing his novel by hand.
Their first private encounter is a bit disarming. He charges into her office and although she says he needs an appointment, he ignores her. He could be perceived as threatening, yet she doesn’t seem frightened. He’s a loner, enigmatic, even disturbing, but somehow the two connect. He returns for another appointment (again pointedly avoiding the school online system) and she surprisingly invites him for dinner.
The setting is sparse with the focus on the actors at all times as the two establish a fragile relationship. Christopher admires her and perhaps she recognizes a kindred spirit. Later when she gets her distressing diagnosis, she requests a troubling favor from the young man she barely knows.
At some points in the play, Parker is narrating the story to the audience. She’s writing and reading her own work and telling of her own background, until she’s interrupted by the strange student. Some of the story is related while other events are depicted before us.
It is fitting that this well- written play is about writers. The two characters discuss Crime and Punishment and writers such as Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thomson, and Ernest Hemingway. The language is beautiful and the dialogue so well-crafted that I found myself reading the script after seeing it.
Bella is writing about a writer and when Christopher comes into her office, he describes a book he plans to write in which a Yale student named Christopher sets out for New York City and encounters a stranger.
Both their stories are dark and deal with life and death, suicide and murder. The events include some autobiographical similarities. There are some interesting plot twists; as viewers we predict what will occur but are generally wrong which makes the drama more interesting.
As Bella advises Christopher, “By the way, not knowing what’s going to happen is a good thing. If your protagonist is leading you then you’ll likely stay ahead of your reader.
Parker is arguably one of the finest actresses on the Broadway stage (“Heisenberg”,” Proof,” “Reckless” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”) TV viewers may recognize her as the drug-dealing mother from the hit show “Weeds. The actress plays a woman who is tough and controlled. She’s single with no family and no friends, yet she is capable and resilient. Despite her serious health issues, she doesn’t allow her character any self-pity as she takes charge of her situation. She witnesses people undergoing chemo and recalls her mother’s horrible death of a debilitating disease and so takes matters in her own hands.
Under the fine direction of Cromer, the play moves quickly and holds our attention. It’s engrossing and interesting, absorbing, and unsettling. Bella listens to “The Sound Inside” while we hold our collective breaths and listen to the words inside.