If you feel the desire to be thoroughly depressed and bored for 90 minutes, check out “The Sound Inside” on Broadway. Adam Rapp’s new play, which runs as a limited engagement until January 12, is decidedly missable, wasting a promising beginning and talented cast on dreadful material.
Mary Louise Parker (“The West Wing,” “Weeds”) plays Bella, a 53-year-old creative writing professor at Yale University who is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. She develops a complicated relationship with a troubled but brilliant student in her freshman seminar, Christopher (Will Hochman, making his Broadway debut), a young man who represents both a chance for connection for the lonely professor and the potential for danger.
Throughout the first third of the play, tension simmers delightfully, effectively intermixed with pathos and humor. However, once the story takes off, none of this potential is realized, as the play abandons all pretenses of thriller in favor of a pretentious and bleak excuse for a character study.
The two-hander is narrated, often by Bella, but occasionally by Christopher, framed as Bella writing notes for a book. Sometimes, when she particularly likes a phrase, she will write it down on a yellow legal pad that is never too far away. The framing device cleverly allows the necessary exposition to be given to the audience in a clever and thematically relevant way. Unfortunately, this is the only clever aspect of the piece.
Both protagonists have written novels presented by the script as underappreciated masterpieces. Throughout the play, Christopher is working on a story of a college student who commits a grisly murder seemingly at random, in an effort to create something as haunting and effective as the murder scene in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Bella is thoroughly enraptured by the novella, calling it the most honest thing she’s ever read, despite the sophomoric story sounding incomplete and shallow.
Likewise, Bella’s novel, an alleged underrated work of genius, tells a childish tale of a popular high school track star who tries and fails to run through a brick wall. While I would like to believe that Rapp is highlighting some critique of the characters and their perceptions of genius, there is no deeper exploration, so this theory proves unlikely.
The appearance of clever themes or profundity with no depth is a recurring motif in the play. The bleakness and darkness of the subject matter are indulged to an enormous degree, but nothing comes of it. The latter half of the play is overwhelmingly depressing, with a decided lack of hope to carry the audience through.
This led to some massive tonal inconsistencies, where jokes would be placed intermittently between joyless and lifeless scenes. In better hands, the hour would have provided a healthy dose of levity to counterbalance the gloom, but Rapp and director David Cromer do not have the deft touch needed, leaving jokes falling flat and feeling out-of-place in so somber a piece.
Parker and Hochman both give fine performances, fully inhabiting their thinly sketched characters. It’s a shame the characters are not worth the efforts, both thoroughly unlikable and uninteresting. Rapp substitutes their loneliness and Bella’s tragedy for any actual sympathy, as if the mere act of being unhappy is reason enough for the audience to root for the pair. It is not. With all the discussion of “Crime and Punishment,” particularly of Raskolnikov as antihero, the inadequacy of the co-protagonists as characters becomes all too clear.
As I left the theater after “The Sound Inside,” I heard a fellow audience-member tell her companion that she liked the play, but felt that she wasn’t smart enough to appreciate or understand it. This type of reaction is exactly what the Rapp appears to he seeking. The script works aggressively hard to appear profound, but without any substance.
There is an arrogant, pseudo-intellectualism to the play, reminiscent of novels that are trying way too hard to appear profound, but neither offer depth nor have anything to say. With so many interesting and enjoyable plays and musicals currently on Broadway, skip the shallow”Sound Inside” and find something more meaningful or fun — which could describe nearly anything else.