Pitch black. I mean pitch. We hear Yale professor/author Bella Baird (Mary-Louise Parker) before she emerges from the dark. Rumpled, middle-aged, “accused of being a lesbian, witch, or maker of Bulgarian cheese” because of marital status and success, she speaks to us in the third person. Said teacher “can’t quite see them (her students), but they’re out there…is this audience friendly, she wonders, are they easily distracted?”
Parker is always compelling. A master of the thoughtful pause, she embodies credibility, triggers anticipation and fosters sympathy. We recognize the voice, extension of selected words, but otherwise await metamorphosis. The slightest movement is indigenous to character. Attention sharpens with the actress’s presence. We think we SEE her think.
It’s late fall. Skeletal trees gradually appear. When she can’t sleep, Bella visits a local park to speak aloud the kind of lengthy, figurative sentences she warns her students against. On the verge of pacing, chest in concave slouch, she scribbles the occasional phrase on a yellow, legal pad.
The 53 year-old has a raging case of (as yet outwardly undetectable) cancer. Her mother died of similar tumors. She knows what’s ahead. We hear no self-pity. Bella is a smart, practical, ironically self-deprecating woman.
Every time the chronicle grows heavy, playwright Adam Rapp deftly releases tension by evoking laughter. We never see it coming. Timing is definite; pain ameliorated without residual guilt. In keeping with Bella’s own approach to life, one feels in sync.
A relationship develops between Bella and her brightest student, Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman). The young man comes to her attention by breaking long term classroom silence with a provocative literary declaration. Day after day, he shows up at at her office refusing to make appointments. “I don’t do the internet.”
Christopher is clever, quick, articulate, and angry at the world. He brings his work to Bella as he writes, in fits and starts. The novel’s protagonist is a Yale freshman named Christopher. “If your protagonist is leading you,” Bella tells him, “you’re likely to stay ahead of your reader.”
Conversation contains not a speck of small talk. They “recognize” one another. He admires Bella and wants something from her. In time, she formulates her own agenda. They grow close. Relationship and disease follow tandem trajectory as do Christopher’s demons. Eventually all three intersect.
Adam Rapp is a helluva writer. Specifics abound. Literary and geographic references heighten reality. Characters appear whole, based on history to which we’re only partly privy. Bella’s poetic writing is rich, not cloying. The novel sounds rather like Salinger twisted by Christopher. Humor affects. Rapp is a master of seductive withholding. What begins as familiar student/teacher interest evolves into something completely unexpected. Twice.
Director David Cromer does an exceptional job with creative staging, naturalistic pacing, and character realization. Where Bella talks in measured phrases, Christopher’s verbal explosions are often Joycean. Her gestures arrive staccato, his sweep, neither seem willing. Both characters morph seamlessly from narrator to participant and back. There isn’t a false moment. We’re held in thrall.
My single caveat is a difference between preview and present form. The first time I saw the play, when Christopher told the story of his novel as Bella read it, we were asked to envision each scenario and conjecture whether his tale was true. This iteration has the young man acting out part of the plot. We’re spoon fed implication. It robs the piece of a tantalizing question.
In his Broadway debut, Will Hochman holds his own with Parker. Decisions have clearly been made. Christopher exudes urgency. Focus is palpable. Lack of visible emotion is astute. The performer listens.
Minimal Set by Alexander Woodward seems to materialize and dissolve with fluency enabled by Heather Gilbert’s precise, evocative lighting. Gilbert’s design also allows a character to step from light into brightness, while the rest dramatically recedes. When a door opens, we realize it’s been invisible up till then.
Projections by Aaron Rhyne creatively elaborate.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Mary-Louise Parker
The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp
Directed by David Cromer
254 West 54th Street
Through January 12, 2020