Review: The 'Sound Inside' Thrills

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"The Sound Inside" starts in darkness. All we hear is Mary-Louise Parker's distinctive voice, as she narrates her character's story: "A middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League University stands before an audience of strangers. She can’t quite see them but they’re out there. She can feel them — they’re as certain as old trees. Gently creaking in the heavy autumn air."

A sharp white spotlight targets her and we see that this lonely Yale professor — Bella Lee Baird — has something shining in her hands. Is it a knife? There's a second of dread. No. It's a pen. And she's using it to write the story she's telling us, of a devastating medical diagnosis and a murky relationship she has with one of her freshmen writing students.

That student is Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman), an entitled kid — also lonely — who wants to be a novelist. At first, the professor is put off by his disrespect when, in a fit of rage, he spits on her floor. But then every day, he comes to her office and, like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, tells her a bit about the plot of his book, which follows a Yale student who befriends an unscrupulous stranger. It's....creepy. And riveting. There's the threat of violence. The main character is named Christopher. Is it real? She wants to hear more and so do we.

But there are other ominous signs. Their relationship seems almost — romantic. They discuss Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," which is, yes, about a student who kills an unscrupulous stranger. And Christopher and Bella are kind of strangers, as he points out. And she doesn't seem all that scrupulous. The signals fairly scream danger.

But danger to whom? And is it physical or something else? Adam Rapp's play, which debuted at Williamstown Theater Festival last year to raves, works well as a thriller. Nothing goes as you might expect it to.

Yet like a novel, all these threats are created out of words. There is no physical menace, very little action, and an enormous sense of distance. Bella is constantly thinking out loud and scratching away on her notepad, but we are not in her head, exactly. (Parker's precision and lack of sentimentality makes this performance compelling instead of twee.) Or if we are in her head, her recounting of her experience is so divorced from the actual pain of it that it doesn't seem as if she feels anything.

This production is helmed by a gifted director David Cromer, whose stark, disciplined vision keeps his two characters materializing out of the blackness. The sets do that, too — ghostly trees appear in one corner, projections of writing in another. At one point, the set of a kitchen receding into the blackness gives a feeling of vertigo.

And there's another surprise. "The Sound Inside" has the feeling of a play with a Big Idea or a Moral Lesson. But what is it? We know both narrators are unreliable and unlikable; we know there is a true tragedy looming. But afterwards, all of that talking just feels empty. But that, perhaps, is not an accident. In the end, this is not a traditional thriller, but a character study. And these two characters use words as walls, trying to keep loneliness and real life at bay. It doesn't work. It starts in darkness — and ends there, too.

"The Sound Inside" by Adam Rapp, directed by David Cromer at Studio 54.

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