(l to r) Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in ‘The Sound Inside.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
By Billy McEntee
Moody lighting, signature minimalism, simple staging — David Cromer’s direction is hard to mistake.
These techniques zeroed in on a community in Our Town, a mother-son relationship in The Treasurer, and — in his Tony-winning triumph — a group of displaced musicians in The Band’s Visit. Cromer’s projects are often marked by lonely people being swallowed into deeper isolations, and the fleeting, shimmering moments when souls connect. Now on Broadway following an acclaimed run at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Cromer tackles these themes anew in Adam Rapp’s sublime new play, The Sound Inside.
It’s a mysterious and abstract title, which feels appropriate: Rapp’s somber two-hander concerns the hyper-literary Bella and technophobe Christopher, a teacher and student at Yale who come into each other’s orbit in the darkening weeks before Thanksgiving break.
Neither looks prepared for the ensuing cold, as evidenced by David Hyman’s costumes: Bella’s moth-eaten sweater has not been patched up, Christopher’s Sunoco jacket won’t survive a New England winter, but Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman imbue their characters with such richness and history that it’s clear they’ve weathered worse.
Christopher is in Bella’s creative writing class and tells her, in the privacy of office hours, that he’s writing a novel. Lives cross, lines blur, and soon Bella and Christopher have developed a relationship that, like many in Cromer’s pieces, is not just intimate but transcendent. In a theatrical touch, Christopher and Bella are transported from the latter’s sterile office to a vibrant restaurant with a minimal amount of movement. The lights shift, a check appears, and suddenly friendless teacher and peerless student are somewhere fresh and new.
Not all the transitions are so smooth. Bella often speaks directly to the audience, and then to Christopher, and then back to the audience explaining she’s talking to Christopher. Though effective in demonstrating how stuck Bella is in her head, it could induce whiplash — but Parker’s Bella is so compelling, so intricately drawn that you would follow her on any roller coaster.
Which is what this sneaky play becomes as Parker deftly navigates the many turns in Bella’s life in that monumental semester. Hochman rises above the could-be cliché of his character, a brooding English student, and Parker speaks in a plain, almost droll, tone that seems unfazed by Bella’s dire circumstances: she has cancer and not much chance of survival. What follows is a strange leap that Rapp asks his characters to make — an awkward pivot that stretches Bella and Christopher’s relationship outside the realistic realm Rapp had grounded it in.
But perhaps we’ve never been in a realistic world at all. Is Bella gathering information to write her second novel, or has she already fictionalized her life and are we hearing her novel read aloud? Cromer’s production keeps us wondering of the true relationship between Bella and student, Bella and the world — on Alexander Woodward’s sparse set, Bella and Christopher are either in tight quarters, side by side, or on opposite sides of the stage with a black hole between them, so close it threatens to engulf. Heather Gilbert’s lighting succeeds in making these distinctions clear and ominous.
It’s only when Bella and Christopher are at their greatest distance, and the darkness nearly consumes them, when — in the most poetic way imaginable — the snow begins to fall.
The Sound Inside
254 West 54th Street, NYC
Through January 12
Billy McEntee is an arts journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, NewNowNext, American Theatre, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others.