Writers writing about writing can be a tricky business. It can tip into self-indulgence or be so much talk that it becomes tedious. Fortunately, Adam Rapp has avoided both of these traps and created “The Sound Inside,” a tense psychological drama that just happens to be about two writers.
Bella is a 50-something professor of literature at Yale who has been diagnosed with cancer. The prospects are grim, and she is at first unsure of what she is going to do. A young student, Christopher, appears in her office without an appointment and begins to demand attention not merely for classwork but for a novel that is working on. An uneasy relationship begins between them.
Bella is fascinated by Christopher’s writing, which she quite admires, and Christopher is a loner misfit in the Yale community. Both are out of their elements, and so it’s not surprising, at least for fiction, that they find one another and fall into an intimate relationship. However, when Bella decides she doesn’t want to go through the seemingly inevitable suffering from a cancer death, she attempts to enlist Christopher to help find a way out. Suffice it to say things don’t work out the way Bella thinks they will, but Christopher is more of a mystery, as is the fate of his novel, which, as in “Hedda Gabler,” exists as a single manuscript. Christopher doesn’t use email or a computer and is given to passionate ravings, which Bella ascribes to an artistic temperament, for the most part.
This could all turn run-of-the-mill were it not for the performances of Mary-Louise Parker as Bella and Will Hochman as Christopher. Bella is compelling as she participates in the unfolding events while largely narrating them. Because she is a writer, her commentary is often literary, as if she’s reading from a novel she has constructed out of the experience. It’s an interesting conceit, and, juxtaposed against the more prosaic interpersonal scenes, it adds tension and dimension to the piece. Christopher is largely a foil to Bella, but he has some wonderful moments including when he reveals his passionate interest in Russian novels, particularly “Crime and Punishment.”
Rapp’s script balances literary argument with nail-biting anxiety and creates a taut and engaging 90 minutes. Parker turns in a wonderfully understated performance that is rich and deep while having just the right amount of scholarly detachment to allow Bella’s wry take to come through. Hochman is pointed and specific, capturing the urgency and ticks of an uneasy undergraduate student and artist who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.
David Cromer has directed with his trademark simplicity and concentration on the humanity of the characters. The play is dimly lit by Heather Gilbert, which gives the piece an expressionistic feeling. Alexander Woodward’s set is spare, with just enough to indicate place while keeping the focus on the characters.
Rapp is careful in unfolding his plot to keep the audience on edge, and as a writer writing about writers creates a multi-textured tale that moves easily from thriller to romance and back again.
THE SOUND INSIDE | Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. | Through Jan. 12: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$169 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins., no intermission