“So this is now,” she says. For emphasis, she adds, “Right now. It’s the late fall. There has been an early snow, nearly a foot of it, in fact. Records have been broken. One barely remembers leaves changing.”
Such specificity of time and place may give us the voyeur’s sense of eavesdropping, in real time, on the tale as it unfolds. It’s an illusion of course. This appealing narrator (she already has described herself to us as “sneakily attractive … the equivalent of a collectible plate mounted to a wall” as though we can’t be trusted to make such a determination based on the evidence before us) teases us from the outset. She wonders: Will we will be friendly? Merciful? Easily distracted?
Not a chance. Not with this electrifying matchup of script and actor. The Sound Inside is playwright Adam Rapp’s contemplation of the variables of existence, the passage of time, the possibility of mining meaning from the randomness that, along with self-awareness, may be God’s cruelest gift to humanity.
The narrator is Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor of creative writing and possible one-trick pony. (It’s been more than two decades since the publication of her lone, well-received novel.) She is played – worn, like a second skin, is more apt – by Mary-Louise Parker, whose gravitational pull on an audience may never have been more irresistible. “My God is a man,” Bella asserts, easily eliding from the third person to first as felicitously as she makes the theoretical land like fact. “He’s selfish and smokes a pipe and looks like a perverted 18th-century French novelist. My God is basically Honoré de Balzac.”
Is she addressing us, or writing about addressing us? A mystery.
The Sound Inside comprises many literary voices. Name-checked before the play’s 90 minutes have passed into evanescence are James Salter, Edith Wharton, Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, Herman Melville and Fred Gipson, whose masterwork, the children’s story Old Yeller, claims a certain equivalency with Crime and Punishment (I’m with Rapp on this). Dostoevsky’s murderous anti-hero Raskolnikov is a surefire accelerant for the nascent writers in her Reading Fiction for Craft seminar.
One of those students, Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman) approaches her with that testy, or testosteronish, bravado of the smug kid who still can’t get over the fact that’s he’s at Yale. When Bella asks him to make an appointment before showing up at her office, he demurs, “Email’s just not my style.”
Among the other things that are not Vermont-bred Christopher’s style: Twitter. And the baristas at the campus cafés “with their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor and those stupid fucking doorknobs in their ears. They’re like these New Age, unshowered, tatted-out Hobbits.”
Yes, there is a story within The Sound Inside. It concerns Bella’s diagnosis of metastatic cancer spreading through her abdomen, Christopher’s resolve to finish a first novel (composed on a manual typewriter of course), and the inevitable yet unexpected trajectory of their relationship, which turns out to be the opposite of romantic. (The Sound Inside reminded me of the early work of John Barth, whose riff on Scheherazade is terrifically Bella-like in its story of storytelling as a necessary means for holding onto life.)
Staged by David Cromer with attention to detail that approaches the microscopic, The Sound Inside lifts a good and always interesting playwright into a higher realm. I can’t think of another writer as drunk on similes, which bounce off of and brush up against each other, vying for our delectation. They’re pungent: “His body is dense and hairy and moves over and into me like some soft rectangular machine,” Bella says of a one-night stand, “that pushes smaller objects toward their inevitable path on an assembly line.”
And I can think of few actors who could put across Bella’s madly appealing mix of ego-abjuring humor, fierce honesty and authentic whimsy as Parker does here. She is given a lovely, affecting counterweight by Hochman, as well as further support from the spartan design by Alexander Woodward; fluid, frequently darkness-enhancing lighting by Heather Gilbert; and Daniel Kluger’s atmospheric but unintrusive music.
And so it almost breaks my heart to add that this production, first presented in July at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is the worst pairing of show and venue I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. The Sound Inside is an intimate work. Studio 54 is exactly the wrong theater for it. As hard as these formidable artists work to achieve that intimacy, the house utterly defeats them. Parker in particular has a delicacy of both presence and delivery that demand proximity. All is lost in the echoes of a cold, distancing space. That’s a terrible shame.