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.