REVIEW: MARY-LOUISE PARKER IN THE SUBLIMINAL, SUBLIME SOUND INSIDE
Adam Rapp’s play transfers to Broadway in a rivetingly dark and detailed production by David Cromer.
By Jesse Green
The urge to move small shows to Broadway should generally be resisted. Whether musicals or plays, most transfers from 199-seat houses feel dinky in palaces accommodating 900, and the frantic efforts made by creative teams to fill the void too often wind up highlighting it instead.
There are, of course, exceptions, including “The Band’s Visit,” which won the Tony Award for best musical last year. That show’s director, David Cromer, a minimalist to begin with, didn’t inflate the material for Broadway; he battened it down, as if for a storm. Urging the audience to come closer instead of forcing the show to grow bigger, he made you enter its world through the smallest possible door.
The surprise — and joy — is that the world can seem so vast when approached that way. Or at least it does in Cromer’s flawless production of “The South Inside,” a play by Adam Rapp that opened at Studio 54 on Thursday. When I saw its world premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2018, it was already a gripping small-scale mystery, and a spectacular showcase for its star, Mary-Louise Parker. Now, having been put through Cromer’s less-is-everything makeover, it’s even more resonant on Broadway: a tragedy about fiction, both the kind we read and the kind we live.
The makeover — a subtle one, naturally — begins with the script. I had to read both versions to see what Rapp had done to tighten the screws without visibly altering the story or the running time: 90 uninterrupted minutes of tension. The Sound Inside is still, self-consciously, a yarn, which makes sense because it’s about writers: the kind of people who in weaving stories are often in danger of unraveling themselves.
That’s literal here. Bella Lee Baird (Parker) is a 50-ish creative writing professor at Yale who has just received a diagnosis of stage 2 cancer. Addressing the audience directly as if reading a novel-in-progress aloud, she describes — and in the process aestheticizes — her unorthodox treatment decisions. These eventually come to involve Christopher Dunn, a freshman in a course of hers called Reading Fiction for Craft.
Christopher (Will Hochman) is a misfit at Yale: He won’t use email or drink fancy coffee. He may be a misfit everywhere else, too, with his bursts of rudeness, floods of invective and obsessive interest in “Crime and Punishment.” But he is nevertheless, in Bella’s judgment, a prodigy. As he shares with her the pages of his own novel-in-progress, about a Yale freshman named Christopher who does something very bad, the two grow closer.
By the time their stories (and fictions) start to merge, the pleasure of fine in-the-moment writing is hopelessly jumbled with dread about what happens next. Even having seen the play before, I was in constant doubt as to its outcome. A piece of advice Bella gives Christopher helps to explain Rapp’s technique here: “If your protagonist is leading you then you’ll likely stay ahead of your reader.” Certainly Rapp, a longtime master of foreboding, stays well ahead of us, as Bella and Christopher seem to have stayed ahead of him.
Rapp’s revisions emphasize those gaps. Lines that tended to explain behavior or to suggest the possibility of such explanations have been cut. (Christopher’s father, described as a schizophrenic in the earlier version is now just “a complete mystery.”) Lines that were giveaways as to the characters’ emotional states are now refocused. (Bella no longer calls Christopher’s prose “gorgeous” but “beautifully restrained.”) Lovely, extraneous selections from other writers’ works have been trimmed in favor of tantalizing selections from Bella’s.
Offering a character’s artistry to an audience is always a gamble, but Rapp doubles down on it; Bella, being the author of two “slim volumes” of stories and one “underappreciated” novel, also speaks in stylish and witty prose. Describing a sexual encounter, she says that the man “moves over and into me like some soft rectangular machine that pushes smaller objects toward their inevitable path on an assembly line.”
That this never becomes twee is miraculous, but Rapp keeps switching up his approach, sometimes having Bella and Christopher alternate in telling the story and other times having them enact it together in scenes. The specificity of the performances also helps prevent the cultivated tone from cloying. Parker, never better in her 30-year stage career, has dug even deeper into Bella, treating each line as if it were an archaeological site; she builds her performance on artifacts, not theories.
And Hochman, who was still pecking his way toward the tricky role at Williamstown, has found it. What can read on the page as a character back-formed from plot necessity, and what therefore seemed like a collection of tics onstage, is now fully connected. Believable both as an 18-year-old and an artist, Hochman — and this is saying a lot — is a worthy partner to Parker onstage.
But it takes a third character — Cromer’s staging, a living presence in itself — to make The Sound Inside so riveting. I don’t know what other director would have dared to provide so little visual information in a two-person show; it is even sparer, more subliminal, on Broadway than it was at Williamstown.
On the other hand, a lack of visual information is a form of visual information; once you adjust to it, the dark created by the designers — Alexander Woodward (sets), Heather Gilbert (lights), Aaron Rhyne (projections) — becomes exceptionally expressive. Between black and jet black there’s room for a lot of drama.
Cromer has likewise forsworn, as a writer steers around clichés, any emotional underlining of the kind you typically get from costumes (David Hyman), sound (Daniel Kluger) and overacting. His principle seems to be that of fiction itself: to force an engagement between the author’s imagination and the reader’s. When you enter a story, especially one that is basically a mystery, you should do so almost naked, with as little information as possible.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the result is almost erotic in its withholding. Rapp tips us off to this by having the manuscript of Christopher’s novella bear an epigraph from “Crime and Punishment”: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”
The Sound Inside interests us at first, bleak sight. It keeps our interest not only on its narrowest terms, as a play about writing, but in its larger implications. What we know about other people, what we know about ourselves, are stories that won’t stay still. As we write our lives, like a good novel, our lives keep out-writing us.
MARY-LOUISE PARKER AND ADAM RAPP CONJURE A HAUNTING
The star and the playwright of The Sound Inside talk about confidence and fame, monsters and witches, and their dogs.
By Elisabeth A. Harris
Adam wants his new play, The Sound Inside, to feel “like a haunting.”
Mysterious and layered, it follows a middle-aged creative writing professor at Yale who becomes close to a student shortly after receiving a terrible cancer diagnosis. The two-person play, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman, premiered to acclaim last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival and will open on Broadway next month, directed by David Cromer.
Mr. Rapp has had a remarkably prolific and varied career, having written some 30 plays, two novels, two graphic novels and nine books for young adults. His television credits include “The Looming Tower” and, coming up, an adaptation of the Philipp Meyer novel “American Rust.” Still, this is his Broadway debut.
Best known for Showtime’s “Weeds,” Ms. Parker is a stage regular, and a Tony Award-winner for “Proof” in 2001. This spring, she’ll star in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I learned to Drive” on Broadway, in the role she originated Off Broadway in 1997.
A few days into previews for The Sound Inside, Mr. Rapp and Ms. Parker gathered in her dressing room at Studio 54 to talk about writing, acting and fame. (There was also a mention of their dogs. He has a puggle named Cesar; she has a cocker spaniel, she thinks, named Mrs. Roosevelt.) Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This play is so much about writing, so why don’t you tell me about your process. Did you have the play pretty well mapped out when you started?
ADAM RAPP I didn’t know how it was going to take shape. I never know. I just kind of have an idea and have a few moments that I need to get to, and sometimes I know what the end is, weirdly enough. I wrote it pretty quickly. I was really in the free-fall — that’s a word we used to have in the play that we cut — in the free-fall of the writing.
How do you do manage to produce so much? Do you approach writing a play like a day job?
RAPP I wish. It’s hard to describe. It feels like when you’re falling in love. I’m totally out of control. Everything goes away. I don’t do my life well and I have to finish it or I feel like I’m going to drown. That’s why it’s hard for me to start something now because I have a job. I work on a television show, and I have to show up every day in the writer’s room. I have a new play that I’m so excited to write, that I want to talk to [Mary-Louise] about, that I want to talk to Cromer about. But the problem is, once I start talking about it, then I have to write it, and then I won’t go to work. It’s always been that way.
Ms. Parker, you’re a writer as well. Did the process of writing or publishing your book, “Dear Mr. You,” change you at all?
MARY-LOUISE PARKER I think it did. I was able to own my writing. I’d written for Esquire for 15 years or something, and written for other things, but I didn’t really talk about it. There was this one moment where a fairly close friend of mine — who won’t remember saying this, so I can go ahead — read something that I’d written and asked me who helped me with it. I didn’t really understand what effect that had on me until I was doing my book and I was able to go and talk about my writing. Which I don’t mind, actually — especially in the way I mind talking about acting.
People just approached me completely differently. They communicated with me in a completely different way. I felt legitimate in a way I never do as an actor — rarely do.
You’re happy talking about writing in a way you’re not comfortable talking about your acting. Why is that?
PARKER There’s a thing, and I can say, “I made that.” I can understand what about it is overwritten or when it’s convoluted, but I also can say, “That’s really good.” And I can’t do that with my acting, ever.
PARKER It’s too amorphous. And it’s my voice, it’s my body, it’s all these things I can’t separate from myself, that are tied into my ego and myself as a woman and my insecurities.
You’ve been in the public eye for a long time. Does it get easier?
PARKER No. Some aspects of it do, but no. I don’t go to things unless I’m paid or I’m supporting somebody I care about. I don’t have social media. I guess that’s kind of revealing about how I feel about it.
RAPP The level of recognition I have is so small it’s like someone will see me at a coffee shop or out in front of the theater and they’ll say “I like your work” — or they think I’m Michael Shannon. I’m not kidding, that’s happened like 900 times. And I have to be like, “No he’s my friend. He has a bigger head.” [Smiling] And then I feel bad because I think he looks like a monster.
PARKER A sexy monster!
RAPP Sexy monster, right.
PARKER And a handsome monster!
RAPP I like being more invisible.
PARKER I feel pretty invisible also.
In New York City?
PARKER Most of the time, yeah. There’s a guy in my neighborhood, he sees me all the time and I keep telling him I’m not Parker Posey. But every day that he sees me he thinks I’m Parker Posey. It’s just hilarious. The way he is so excited about the fact that I’m Parker makes me happy.
Let’s talk about The Sound Inside. Adam, Mary Lee Baird was your mother’s maiden name. Why did you choose to name your main character Bella Lee Baird?
RAPP It’s not autobiographical at all. I think the thing that feels most common with my mother is she was just rigorously autonomous. She had a kind of lonely life. She didn’t ask much of the world in terms of being social or being loved or being sexual; she was kind of profoundly fine with her solitude. She was the oldest of 13 kids from a huge Catholic family, so part of it was she was just tired of being around a bunch of screaming Catholics.
Did you decide to name her Baird when you started writing or later on?
RAPP I named her Baird immediately, and I don’t really know why. But it’s not an elegy to her. I’ve never really written about her directly. There are weird things that, actually, Mary-Louise does: You stand like my mom. It’s really weird. That’s just accidental, but I see a spectral version of her sometimes onstage.
Mary-Louise, you do a lot of speaking directly to the audience in this play, and I understand direct address is not your favorite thing?
PARKER I feel differently about it now than I did even at Williamstown. I felt like it was something I could never achieve properly. But I’ve gotten closer. I’ve gotten a lot closer.
What was scary about it?
PARKER Everything. I like the comfort and the elasticity of two people because things have to be somewhat self-generated when it’s just you. It becomes very technical. Because I want them to hear his beautiful writing — and in the best way, it’s not easy writing, in the absolute best way. Because it’s so rich. I want them to hear that richness, but I don’t want it to be about that. I want them to also get his story.
Can you tell me more about working with that kind of writing?
PARKER I’ve done a lot of new plays. Sometimes the writer comes in and they’re like, “This is it.” And maybe there’s an “an” or an “and” changed — and that’s fine, too. And then there are times when it’s all over the place, and they bring in 20 pages every day, but no one else is a part of that. But I felt that [Adam] was part of it in a way that he’s like a character.
RAPP It makes it easy when the actor is so dramaturgically inclined. She has a strange — I don’t want to use the word “witchy” because that’s stupid —
PARKER Oh, I like it!
RAPP She has a way of saying, “I need something here.” Or “I’m being too articulate here, I want to be inarticulate here.” Or “I don’t want to go into Bella’s bag of tricks where she can embroider, I want something that’s balder or harder.” Not a lot of actors I’ve worked with can actually come up with the thing they want in a way that is benefiting the dramaturgy of the play and not just benefiting their own performance or their own vanity.
PARKER Can I ask a question?
PARKER When you’re writing a novel, do you ever then see it dramatized? Or are you just like, this is a book, this is a this, this is a that?
RAPP Yeah, I always know. I’ve never turned one into the other.
Is the feeling as you write the same?
RAPP Not the same. For a book, it’s more meditative and controlled, and I feel like I can return to it. I feel like an adult. When I’m writing a play, I just feel like an adolescent.
MARY-LOUISE PARKER IS RIGHT WHERE SHE WANTS TO BE
The acclaimed actor discusses her current Broadway hit, the upcoming revival of one of her most indelible—and controversial—roles, and the hard-won insights of getting older.
By Richard Lawson
In her current Broadway Play, The Sound Inside (running at Studio 54 in New York City through January 12), the actor Mary-Louise Parker is often alone on a bare, dimly lit stage, glowing with quiet purpose at the center of a void. That she’s able to fill that looming space with such a subtle command is a testament to her skill as a stage actor—which, many in the industry believe, is unrivaled by anyone of her generation. After admiring Parker’s work in film and television for years—and studying the roles she originated in modern American theater classics like How I Learned to Drive and Proof when I was in school—it was a thrill to finally see her live, giving such specific, thoughtful life to playwright Adam Rapp’s poetic, looping language.
In the production Parker carefully draws the audience in closer and closer as a curious tension mounts. Her character, a writer and Yale professor named Bella, recounts the sad story of her brief and mysterious encounter with a troubled student (played by Will Hochman). It’s enveloping, mesmerizing work, and I left the 90-minute play hungry for even more. So I sought out the actor herself, traveling back to the theater on a bitterly cold recent Friday afternoon. I was led up a few flights of stairs and then, after a soft knock on the door, ushered into Parker’s dressing room. Parker, 55, was having a little meal of soup and crackers, listening to some music as she prepared for yet another journey into the dark. She was alone, just as she often is onstage in The Sound Inside, but there was a warmth present in this room, a peaceful hush that gave no indication that its sole occupant was about to speak such serious things to a brand—new crowd of stranger for an hour and a half.
Our introductions were made—me realizing, with a jolt, that I might be meeting my favorite actor—we settled down on a pair of a charmingly tattered sofas facing one another to have a chat about Parker’s fascinating career. I asked her if this play was particularly hard work, given that she has to do so much of the heavy lifting alone. (Hochman does provide able support, though.)
Park shrugged. “It’s as taxing as you make it. I feel like I would make anything taxing. This is the most arduous, technically. Because [the text] is so descriptive, because it’s like prose. Which is challenging to act. To make sure the hierarchy of the text is getting across in a way that people don’t fall asleep. The most important thing for me is that I sound like I’m just a person talking, like I’m not exerting effort. I’m exerting more effort [in The Sound Inside] than I probably ever have. But I can’t think of a part that I’ve played where I go, Oh, that was easy. I don’t think there is one.”
I asked her about the rigor of that, how she manages it. Is she superstitious? Does she have crucial preshow rituals? “I can’t even talk about them I’m so superstitious,” she answered with a laugh. Parker has of late been realizing some things about how she works, and about what she needs in order to not get stuck in her head, caught in a churn of self-doubt.
“Even at my advanced age, I’m really discovering now the effect that being onstage has on me, [which] I’ve never really faced before,” she told me. “I think there’s a part of me that always worries I’m not making the right impression, or that somebody doesn’t like me. I think that’s led me, at times, after I’ve come offstage, to indulge people much more than I should. I am happiest, have always been happiest, when I could leave the theater and get in a car and go home. I’m so grateful whenever I meet somebody, so, so grateful. But I’m just not fully myself. I never know how else to say it.
“It’s almost like when you go home and you’ve maybe had one drink too many and you thought you had all your faculties, but then you wake up and you’re like…” Here she made a face off sudden panic. “It’s just that one little bit. It’s not like you’re hammered or blacked out or something. It’s just like, Oh, god, why did I say that? Or, Did I sound super egotistical? I must have felt so insecure to do that.”
While she may not always want to interact with her audience after a performance, showgoers are chief in mind when she is preparing each night. “Tickets are expensive. They’re really fucking expensive,” she said, before apologizing for cursing. “I want to give the best show on that night that I can. I know that if you talked to anybody who’s ever worked with me, any other actor, they would back me up on that. It’s that show. I don’t care what happened the night before. [The audience] deserves their ticket price.”
I asked her if she’s hard on herself when she feels a performance hasn’t gone right. She widened her eyes and took a quick intake of breath. “I mean, like…” From that small reaction it was clear that, yes, Mary-Louise Parker, one of the best stage actors alive, often takes herself to task. “I’m so much better [about that] than I used to be, though,” she assured me. “And also, other things used to bother me, like cell phones, and now I’m able to compartmentalize it. Because I can’t afford to really let that in. Some things shift seismically as you get older. It never occurs to you that they will ever change, and then they do. You wake up and you go, Oh, I’m okay, right?”
“Things change as you get older,” she continued. “And some of them are good. It makes up for the fact that you’re developing, like, weird moles, and everyone’s dying around you, and you have to go to the doctor all the time because this hurts, and your hair is not as nice as it used to be or whatever. There are these few little things that come with it that are amazing.”
With that sentiment Parker let loose that trademark sideways smile of hers, the one that breaks her contemplative intensity, that indicated a wry awareness of the world—and a wistful delight in it—that is so evident in her performances. In conversation she’s bracingly smart, a keen communicator. Which is why, I suspect, she’s been pulled back over and over again to the immediacy of the stage. For an actor who has worked onscreen as successfully as she has—most notably as the star of the hit Showtime series Weeds for eight seasons—Parker has been remarkably committed to a life in the theater. She may take a few years off here and there, but she always returns.
“I went to drama school, so I wanted to be a new play actor,” she told me. “I wanted to be a regional theater actor. When I pictured myself as an actor, that’s what I see myself doing. The rest of it is stuff that came along, and some of it was incredibly fulfilling and I was really lucky. I got a lot of good chances at a certain point. But if I think about myself as an actor, it think about this; that hallway, walking to places. That’s what I think about. I don’t think about sitting in a trailer or going to a press junket. I’ve never been to the Oscars.”
She clarified: “I’m not diminishing that. Because the world needs those people, the world needs those big movie stars with their smiles and their charms. People want to disappear into movies in that way, in a way that those particular people can deliver that I can’t. The world needs that, and I like it. That’s just not where I’m usable.”
Having her first child, in 2004, is what made Parker crave the stability—financially, at least—of doing Weeds, which premiered in 2005. (She adopted her second child, a daughter, in 2007). “I’d done West Wing, and I wanted to do a series once I had a baby. I was like, I have to make a regular living. I was a single parent then, suddenly.” Whether Parker’s filming something or working on a play, her two children have always been privy to her professional life in one way or another. “I would put my son in the Baby Björn when I was doing Reckless and do my makeup. He had his first Halloween at the Friedman [Theatre]. He had an Easter egg hunt on the stage when I was doing Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”
In recent years Parker has chosen non-theater work judiciously. “I did Red Sparrow, and I did Mr. Mercedes. I did these things that I was able to eke out in four-day increments. [My kids] were at the age where they needed me to be there. Especially my daughter, because I’m her only parent. I’m really glad that I did that.”
This year and next, Parker is back onstage in a big way. Once her lauded run in The Sound Inside has ended, she’ll begin work on a Broadway revival of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning memory play about a woman, called Li’l Bit, recounting past sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. It’s a daring, tricky play, one that Parker seems both nervous and excited to revisit for the first time since she tackled the role off-Broadway in 1997.
Parker told me she enjoys taking another crack at something she’s done before. “I would go back to every movie I’ve ever done, probably—although I haven’t really seen them—to redo scenes that I wasn’t happy with. Or just to have another shot at them,” she said. “With [How I Learned to Drive], there’s a big chunk of it that I felt like never really cracked. There was another part of it that was so fulfilling that I don’t even know how to characterize it. It was very hard to let go of at the time.”
In some sense How I Learned to Drive seems very timely for the moment, in all its piercing investigation of the long tail of sexual trauma. But it’s too risky, too, and has been received by some over the years as perhaps being too nostalgic, or even loving, toward a habitual predator. That reaction is likely to be heightened in the charged climate of the #MeToo era.
“I read it again and I saw it in a different way,” Parker told me. “There are things about it that I worry that people now might even be not willing to take in. I don’t know how we’re going to go about that. Because it’s all about gray area, and right now, the way the whole [#MeToo] movement is, it’s very black and white. This play is not about that, so I don’t know how that’s going to go across. I thought I had it all worked out, and then I went, This could be horrible! His character is extremely sympathetic. And their relationship is about the love that can exist within a gray area of a toxic relationship. Which, I don’t know about you, but I know where that is. I don’t know if people are willing to look at that.”
However, this revived version of the play is greeted, Parker will always have first cliam on the material, a pride of place that is am major driving force in her career. “If I’m proud of anything, it’s really that there’s a bunch of plays where the first production, there’s my name on it. It doesn’t matter if they failed or not. I remember the very first reading of Proof. I remember the very first reading of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, or Prelude to a Kiss.”
Parker has built herself a mighty canon, with The Sound Inside its latest entry. For Parker, a writer herself, words are of chief importance. But even they have their limits, maybe. “I probably wouldn’t want to see a play that’s about social media, I could say that,” she mused to me. “I probably wouldn’t want to see a play that’s about something I really have absolutely no interest in.” But then she caught herself, briefly carried off by a new idea. “But I’m sure if it was really well written…”
So maybe we can expect to see Mary-Louise Parker telling the Instagram story on Broadway sometime in the near future. She’d no doubt do it brilliantly.
THE SOUND INSIDE ON BROADWAY: MARY-LOUISE PARKER SHINES IN ADAM RAPP’S EXQUISITELY DARK DRAMA
By Chris Jones
Anyone who has tended to the dying, or even the severely challenged, has seem someone’s mind flick back across their entire lives, thinking about their successes and, shudder, their failings. They also usually think about what to do with the time they have left.
Shouldn’t we all? Actually, most of our lives are made up of the drip, drip of the everyday nonsense that we have convinced ourselves matters. But give someone a hard deadline for their own death, and they might then think about doing something of which they never would otherwise dream.
That’s the situation in which Bella, the reluctant and macabre heroine of Adam Rapp’s exquisitely dark and Dostoevskian little play, The Sound Inside, finds herself.
As played in this gorgeous piece of theater by Mary Louise Parker — and, heaven forfend, what a complete performance! — Bella is a 50-ish woman, a professor of creative writing who sacrificed her personal life to a climb up the academic tentpole to a position at Yale University. She’s the maybe-unreliable narrator of her own story, self-critical and fiendishly intelligent, even if she never has been all that productive. Couple of minor things published. That’s been it. Still, a life to fill the years.
But now cancer, endured without anyone to take her to chemotherapy. Or pick her up after. If she even wants picking up.
Enter an enigmatic, invasive, 18-year-old undergraduate named Christopher (an all-in Will Hochman, keeping up with Parker). Bella already suspects he is a prodigious writer in the gonzo David Foster Wallace mode with a Luddite personality located somewhere on the proverbial spectrum (he hates Twitter). But can he actually do anything for her, now that life seems to be dealing such rough blows?
Should she? Would he? Will they? Would that be fair to him? What answers might they find together? Dare she even ask?
All of that is revealed within about 90 minutes in director David Cromer’s existentially terrifying production, a gorgeously expressionistic staging wherein meaning and temporary respite continually emerges from, and then returns to, darkness. The script actually has a campus setting, but theses ghostly shadows of New Haven might as well be the devil’s waiting room.
Will Bella find comfort with Christopher? Spend half an hour with Bella, and with Parker’s clear-eyed dive into mortality, and you desperately hope so.
An affair between a professor and a freshman is, of course, salacious and intriguing, as well as morally problematic. But sex is only one possibility here as Bella navigates a new personal world order, otherwise known as running out of time.
With the help of a lighting design from Heather Gilbert that craves the black of night more than any illumination, Cromer keeps misdirecting you as you watch this oddest of couples navigate whatever it is they are doing. One of Cromer’s most stellar achievements here is the continuance of Bella’s self-dramatization. On Alexander Woodward’s set, a design that refuses ever to fully reveal itself, one location of their affair seems to melt into another so organically that a cinematic term like cross-fade does not do it justice.
These are theatrical transformations, explicitly directed to point out how one moment of our life tends to bleed into another. We don’t get separate scenes. We don’t get an intermission. We just live until it ends.
Rapp is writing about how death usually comes with a sudden awareness of the youth of other people, fellow humans totally unaware of how lucky they are right now, and the rich banquet of possibility that lies ahead. How perfect that we now see “The Sound Inside” — which is even better than when I first saw it in Williamstown — at Studio 54, once the playground of oblivious hedonists.
BROADWAY REVIEW: THE SOUND INSIDE STARRING MARY-LOUISE PARKER
Gorgeously directed and beautifully acted, Adam Rapp’s new play is a stunning character study of someone you’d like to know.
By Marilyn Stasio
Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a writing student who understands his odd-duck teacher and shares her values. Their intense Platonic relationship is all the more touching for being, of necessity, so brief and, in the end, so confoundingly dramatic.
Parker plays Bella Baird, a 53-year-old creative writing professor who lives and works in the most dismal of environments, courtesy of Alexander Woodward’s unsparing set designs. Her office is a gray cube with not a drop of color to give it a hint of life. Equally drained of life, her home offers no joy, not even a sense of comfort. (Pillows? Rugs? Don’t make me laugh.) Even her work wardrobe, supplied by David Hyman, is rendered in dark hues that reduce her to a slender shade who blends into the background of every room.
This overwhelming sense of depression is externalized even more dramatically in Heather Gilbert’s lighting design. The show opens in deep darkness, and only grudgingly, it seems, provides some warming lights for Bella and the heartbreaking monologues she delivers mainly to herself, then gradually to Christopher, and from time to time, directly to the audience.
There isn’t a hair out of place in the basic structure of the piece, and helmer David Cromer must have counted every last one of those hairs before allowing them onstage. Not a breath of air, not a sliver of light, not a nuance of dialogue gets away from this master manager. The sense of control is absolute, and some might find it claustrophobic. Or too manipulative. But for those who can survive by taking shallow breaths, it’s perfect.
You’d never know it to look at her, but Bella is a hoot. She lives almost entirely in her head, which is where she stores her scathing wit and deepest secrets. But for some reason, she’s decided to share those secrets with us. Her range of topics starts with God, whom she describes as “a fat man with money who can still get it up.” After describing some of his unlovely qualities (bad breath, gout, short penis), she says that her God is basically “a perverted 18th century French novelist” – specifically, Honore de Balzac.
After moving on to discuss certain favorite authors (James Salter – good for her), she grows more personal, sharing such intimate secrets as her state of health, which will become more important as she and Christopher become close friends. And look at her, laughing at herself. “Like many single, self-possessed women who’ve managed to find solid footing in the slippery slopes of higher education, I’ve been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. …and a collector of cat calendars.”
No sooner have we enjoyed that laugh than she swerves off into some truly harrowing memory of her mother’s death. But finally, we’re in her class on Reading Fiction for Craft, where a freshman named Christopher Dunn stops everyone cold with the announcement that he intends to write a scene as powerful as Dostoevsky’s scene with the pawnbroker.
Soon, Christopher is making drop-in visits to Bella’s office, where he occasionally comes down from his literary mountain to share something more relatable to a non-academic audience. He prefers writing in longhand to using his computer, hates email, and really loathes twitter, which he declares is the medium “for people who are terrified by the idea of solitude.”
And so it goes. They discuss each other’s writing. They drift apart. They get back together. As their friendship deepens, we watch Parker diving deeper into Bella’s inner life. We watch Hochman loosen up on the sardonic sophomoric humor and allow Christopher to become less schematic, more serious, more honest. And we watch Rapp slip a rein on their brainy, but verbose dialogue, chopping sentences, skating over individual words.
There’s something hypnotic about the whole exercise. Parker is the hypnotist and her ravishing voice is the Piper’s song, drawing us closer and closer until – perhaps — we are perfectly happy to follow her off a cliff.
THE SOUND INSIDE BROADWAY REVIEW: DARK DAYS, DARKER THOUGHTS & THE INCANDESCENT MARY-LOUISE PARKER
By Greg Evans
Broadway doesn’t really do thrillers anymore. Unless we expand the definition to encompass the wailing banshees of The Ferryman or the occasional Martin McDonough blood drench, the stage has mostly ceded the genre to Hollywood. Yet that scarcity goes only so far in explaining the odd power of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a remarkable psychological mystery starring the ever-astonishing Mary-Louise Parker and her sole co-star, the up-to-the-challenge Broadway newcomer Will Hochman.
The word “thriller” might be misleading – The Sound Inside, directed by David Cromer with a hushed surety and opening tonight at Broadway’s Studio 54 – includes no obvious crimes, no hint of the supernatural or anything else we associate with bump-in-the-night tales. Rapp instead has written an intensely quiet play of two lonely people circling one another, each as wary of the other and both seeming to reach out more as instinct than plan. To say we fear the worst is more or less true, but only because we hope for something good and suspect – both from the mood created and the hints dropped – that we’ll be as disappointed as we fear they’ll be.
No spoiler alerts are needed here – I won’t reveal whether the hopes or fears are satisfied, what happens to the characters or whether the heavy sense of dread that begins as soon as Parker’s character, a 53-year-old Yale professor who tells us within minutes of taking the stage that she’s been diagnosed with advanced cancer, reaches an end of any sort.
What we know, at least initially, of Parker’s Bella Baird is what she tells us. On a dark, bare stage – at least, we assume it’s bare because it’s too dark to see; when a stick of furniture is needed or even a tiny kitchen, they’ll show up – Bella introduces herself directly to us, occasionally landing upon a phrase so good she pauses to write it down.
Perhaps she’s writing a story about her life – she teaches writing, she’s a writer – or maybe she’s writing a novel, acting out a fictional role on us, the audience, to see how it plays. I suspect the former, but anyway, here are some of the things she tells us:
Beyond her somewhat forgiving brown eyes, your narrator could be described as unremarkable. In that thorny subjective bureau of classification known as the Looks Department, if she’s being brutally honest with herself, she’d say she’s perhaps four or five degrees beyond mediocre, also known as “sneakily attractive.
And about the moment when she was reading a favorite book and the bad news came:
Anyway, I was about forty pages into it when I got up to go to the bathroom and was suddenly doubled over in pain. It felt as if I’d been stabbed in the stomach with a hunting knife.
And then this:
I have no brothers or sisters. I live in faculty housing. I don’t own property. I’m essentially a walking social security number with a coveted Ivy League professorship and a handful of moth-bitten sweaters.
Soon, Bella is telling us of the writing seminar she teaches, one in which she always has the class read Crime and Punishment for Dostoyevsky’s way of rendering an antihero. (Remember what I said about hints and forecasts of dread?) During one such session, with the class “engaged in a lively discussion about the murder of the pawnbroker and her sister,” a usually quiet student named Christopher Dunn blurts out, “Someday I’m going to write a moment like that.”
“It was,” Bella remembers, “as if someone had tossed a dinner plate into the center of the room.”
Soon enough the maybe-troubled young man is showing up at Bella’s office for appointments he didn’t make, looking like “an oversized fourteen-year- old,” spewing college-level, Holden Caulfield bile about other students, other teachers, life.
“It’s the baristas who really freak me out,” Christopher says. “With their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor and those stupid f*cking doorknobs in their ears. They’re like these New Age, unshowered, tatted-out Hobbits.”
When Christopher spits in disgust on his teacher’s office floor, the act seems both sophomoric and threatening. When he shows up the next day, apologetic, Bella instructs him to retrieve a mop and pale from the utility closet and get to work. He does.
We see what’s happening already, these two bobbing and weaving and pushing and running, but returning, always returning. Soon their sharing dinners and drinks, he stays over one night but sleeps on the couch. Are we watching a HimToo moment in the making? Or have our minds just been conditioned to go there, because the play certainly doesn’t seem in a hurry to get anywhere, instead suggesting a genuine meeting of soul and mind, he sharing his new novel with her, chapter by just-written chapter, including a truly disturbing development that an unfazed Bella sets to analyzing, a teacher through and through and maybe just a bit low-key delighted in his trust and in his talent and in the fact that he sought out her own little-read book and praises it with the same care she showed his. In each other, they recognize themselves and, finally, someone else.
But a gentle, step-too-far brush of his hand against her cheek brings it all to a stop. He doesn’t visit anymore, she misses their talks but has other things on her mind: The cancer has gotten worse. She begins to plan her suicide.
And that’s where I’ll leave you, though Rapp doesn’t. He’s already dropped references to favored books besides Crime and Punishment. Like Old Yeller and Franny and Zooey. We know Bella and Christopher will reunite, we just don’t know when or how. We know a mention of Old Yeller doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s gonna get put down, but it doesn’t mean she’s not.
Don’t worry, you won’t guess. Besides, The Sound Inside – I haven’t even revealed what the title means – has gotten us where we’re going well before it reaches whatever way it will end. We started by watching two damaged souls, portrayed with exquisite tenderness and edge, moving toward something like grace. We know from plenty of books they’ll find something human.
THE 10 BEST THEATER PERFORMANCES OF 2019
By Eben Shapiro
Don’t turn to the theater for escapism this year. On the New York stage, theater artists tackled many of America’s most painful, persistent wounds: income inequality, racism and the lasting trauma of slavery, civil disobedience, the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. Not to mention a comedy about the gaping flaws in the country’s foundational document, the Constitution. It was a thought-provoking, compelling year, a civics lesson for the ages, embraced by audiences hungry to engage in the most pressing issues of our time.
- American Utopia
Other than 90-minute plays with no intermission, the staged concert is one of Broadway’s best recent inventions. Bruce Springsteen set a high bar with his introspective 2017 show, but David Byrne meets that standard with his entertaining American Utopia. Byrne, both artistic genius and working artist, fully embraces his thoughtful geekiness, which shines through in every aspect of this show. Wry commentary punctuates all your favorite Talking Heads songs, performed by a killer 12-piece band.
- The Sound Inside
The Sound Inside is meticulously crafted to appeal to lovers of literature, a savvy tactic to seduce theatergoers who pay to wallow in the spoken word. Mary-Louise Parker plays a Yale creative-writing professor, whose main love in life is her collection of books. (“I’m a whore for first editions,” her character confesses.) The engrossing, layered plot simmers with tension, misdirection and advice for writers—a cliché like “simmers with tension” would never fly in Professor Parker’s class. Parker is doing the kind of stripped-down work that Hollywood loves, but she transcends stereotypes by simply inhabiting the role.
- True West
This year, a lot of people expressed strong positive feelings about Keanu Reeves. I feel the same way about fellow Gen X icon Ethan Hawke—particularly after his mad, manic performance in this kinetic revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. (Cool desert set.) Paul Dano, as the “good” brother, hits his stride as the volume turns up to 11 and chaos ensues.
- The Mother
French actor Isabelle Huppert gives a delightfully unhinged performance as a pill-popping mother obsessed with her son and contemptuous of her husband (Chris Noth).
It sounds overwhelming: a Japanese-language version of Sophocles’ nearly 2,500-year-old play, invoking elements of Noh theater and Buddhist philosophy, performed entirely in a pool of water. Yet it was spellbinding and probably the best concert I attended this year, thanks to mesmerizing accompaniment provided by world-class percussionists.
- What the Constitution Means to Me
The Constitution! It’s so funny! Heidi Schreck wrote and starred in What the Constitution Means to Me, which was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Schreck is a wonderful comedic actor, and her timely explanation of the intent, flaws and meaning of the Constitution arrived on Broadway at the moment in our nation’s history when we needed it most.
It’s hard to believe that work on this musical began more than a decade ago, since one of its most memorable songs is about a wall and whom it keeps out. An intertwined retelling of two Greek myths, Hadestown ran the table at the 2019 Tony Awards with 14 nominations; it ultimately won eight, including best musical, best original score, and best featured actor in a musical for standout star André De Shields. It also won a Tony for its steampunk scenic design of a most stylish Hades. But it’s this show’s prescience that will stick with you, as summed up in its lyrics: “We build the wall to keep us free … The wall keeps out the enemy … The enemy is poverty.”
- Slave Play
Yes, even in the days of a pussy-grabbing President, it is still possible to shock a Broadway audience. Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play is a provocative exploration of sex, race, relationships, plus a very funny send-up of academic pretension. Expertly engineered to generate discomfort in the audience, its impact and images linger for days.
- The Inheritance
Epic in ambition and scale, this flawed masterpiece about the lives of an intersecting group of gay men in New York City is too long and, at times, too talky. Yet there are so many moments of transcendence, particularly the end of the play’s first part, where the accumulated power of Matthew Lopez’s haunting, heartbreaking story left much of the audience weeping softly.
- The Lehman Trilogy
The Lehman Trilogy is an electric commentary on the American Dream gone spectacularly awry. The story chronicles the rise and fall of the onetime Wall Street powerhouse Lehman Brothers, covering nearly two centuries of bristling ambition, greed, economic history and internecine family warfare. Despite that vast scope, only three stellar actors seamlessly portray all of the play’s dozens of characters, a remarkable accomplishment of both skill and endurance. The play is beautifully staged at Park Avenue Armory, which has turned into New York’s undisputed main stage for presenting cutting-edge, visually inventive theater. It’s returning for a Broadway run—order your tickets now.