Tony- and Emmy-Award winner Mary-Louise Parker has made her highly anticipated return to the Great White Way in Adam Rapp’s suspenseful two-hander The Sound Inside – an engrossing new American play (the playwright’s first to be produced on Broadway), presented at Studio 54 and backed by the respected Lincoln Center Theater and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Directed by David Cromer, the intimate work takes us straight to the heart of all great drama – personal revelatory storytelling by three-dimensional characters in crisis, brought to life by superb acting and direction.
Parker stars as Bella Baird, a Creative Writing Professor at Yale who is dealing with a monumental challenge. As a woman who appreciates the solitude of a scholarly existence, with no partner, immediate family, or close friend to rely on, she turns to Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman, in an impressive Broadway debut) – an extremely intelligent, expressive, and enigmatic freshman in her class, who shares her love of literature and art, her taste for isolation, and a distaste for almost everything else – to do her an unsettling favor.
Through direct address to the audience, re-enactments of conversations and interactions with her student, and third-person readings and recitations of their stories within the story, Bella discloses her background, her thoughts on a variety of topics, her dire situation, and her resulting needs. Her (Rapp’s) eloquent language is sometimes meta-theatrical, often poetic, sometimes professorial, pragmatic, intellectual, or wry, and always riveting, as we watch the dynamic of the two smart and likeable characters unfold, feel their growing rapport, and get hints of her shocking plan. Parker masterfully delivers every nuance, provocatively moving back and forth between segments of fiction and reality, and keeping us guessing which is which. Her stellar performance is brilliantly supported by Hochman, whose portrayal of his younger character’s artistic outsider temperament includes bursts of anger about the decline of writing in favor of social media, vivid descriptions of both beautiful and startling imagery, and moments of sincere empathy, as they navigate their way through the thrilling non-linear narrative to an unexpected (and uncertain) conclusion.
A dark and spare set design (Alexander Woodward), with projections (Aaron Rhyne) and lighting (Heather Gilbert) that provide occasional modulated spots and diffuse areas of illumination in the tenebrous space, are matched with costumes (David Hyman) in a somber monochromatic palette, all of which perfectly enhance the increasingly bleak and gloomy mood.
The Sound Inside is exquisitely written, expertly directed and designed, and compellingly performed – a potent piece of must-see theater, a magnificent Broadway premiere for Rapp and Hochman, and a triumphant return to the stage by Parker, in what, for me, is her best work yet.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.