Bella Baird (Maggie Bofill) introduces herself as an “unremarkable” middle-aged professor at a prestigious college (Yale), perhaps “four or five degrees beyond mediocre looking, also sneakily attractive.” She’s ironically self-deprecating, casual and rumpled, her long hair uncombed. When she can’t sleep, she walks to The New Haven Green and pontificates to the trees using lengthy, figurative sentences she’d find objectionable in her class. “Let’s go back a bit…”
Bella recently learned she has stomach tumors, cancer. Otherwise healthy at 53 with few vices, she can’t help but wonder why. There’s no one to tell. “I’m a walking social security number with…a closet full of moth-eaten sweaters.” There’s a brief, detailed explanation of what’s happening in her abdomen. Stick with me, this is neither a sob story nor a Hallmark film. It’s compelling.
One day in her class, a student who never said a word comes out with, “Someday, I’m going to write a moment like that,” referring to a Dostoevsky passage. “Just saying it out loud takes courage,” Bella comments (to us). Next day, the boy, Christopher (Ephraim Birney), shows up in her office. (Bofill effectively switches between narration and immersion.)
He’s loquacious, smart and smart ass, too clever by half, and loves her class. For a moment the boy phases out, a small clue and not performed well. The student came to tell her he’s writing a novel. “That’s especially ambitious for an Ivy League freshman with a full course load,” Bella remarks.
Christopher returns the next day and the next. Passing time is indicated by a moment of soft black or changing camera perspective. He relates the story of his book as far as he’s written. The protagonist is a Yale freshman named Christopher. Bella is intrigued and invites him to dinner. Afterwards, they go back to her apartment. (Seamless transition.)
He tells her about his home life, a girl at school and asks a few personal questions like why Bella’s alone. “I’m looking for a partner I can lay in bed and read with.” They’re drawn to one another, but not sexually. It’s a kind of recognition. He’s read his teacher’s books. (Her novel sounds terrific.)
The boy disappears for days after without explanation. When he turns up back in class, Bella approaches him but is given short shrift. She lets herself be picked up in a bar. Sex is described with wry wit. After another stomach attack and hospital stay (Christopher sends a card), she walks away from chemo having watched someone else suffer.
Bella has a plan, but she needs someone’s help. There are no friends. She asks Christopher. He agrees if she’ll read the novel. We hear the rest of his book. It’s strong and well written. The play’s ending is unexpected and satisfying.
Adam Rapp has concocted a riveting story. Language is literate, evocative, pithy; characters captivate.
Maggie Bofill doesn’t seem all there in her opening monologue, but fills the character’s skin increasingly as the play progresses and has us through most of its narrative.
Ephraim Birney uses a few too many facial expressions in place of internalized emotion, but also gets better in time. His retelling of Adam’s book is excellent.
Direction is smooth and naturalistic; pacing excellent.
I saw and reviewed Manhattan Theater Club’s production with Mary- Louise Parker and Will Hochman. Both left big impressions. This is an outstanding play, however, and worthy of watching without comparisons.
Photos by Pedro Bermudez
TheaterWorks Hartford presents
The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp
In a Film to Stream Production
With Maggie Bofill and Ephraim Birney
Directed by Rob Ruggiero and Pedro Bermudez
Splendid Lighting Design – Amith Chandrashaker
Composer Billy Bivona
Streaming Through April 30