Mary-Louise Parker always acts with such true-to-life effectiveness that she really seems to thoroughly become the characters she plays. This naturalness permeates her portrayal of 53-year-old Bella Baird, a creative writing professor in Adam Rapp’s odd play “The Sound Inside.”
We first meet her solo as she ruminates to the audience and to herself about her attitudes toward life and literature, including a funny take on God. We get a colorful portrait of a fascinating single woman with literary aspirations. But she is not alone on stage for long in this play that runs and intermission-less 90 minutes.
Into her office storms Christopher, a freshman student, who aspires to be a novelist, intensely played with conviction by Will Hochman. The interplay of their conversation is challenging, and a teacher-student friendship develops. Christopher turns up with a novella, and he wants Bella to read and evaluate it candidly with no dishonest response.
The leading character of the novella is also named Christopher, and as Bella reads, they both recite passages for the audience to follow. The outcome turns out to be especially grim and Bella is impressed.
Bella’s life has turned grim too. She has been diagnosed with what her doctor predicts will be a fatal cancer, and Bella begins to think of wanting to kill herself with lethal doses of barbiturates. She wants Christopher to help.
Playwright Rapp digs deeply into the personalities, aspirations, talents and outlooks of both characters in his two-hander. It is a strange mixture, and one may ponder the effectiveness of the work as a play, but Parker and Hochman extract the maximum from their characters and the writing.
They are aided by the fluid direction of David Cromer and the production design. The lighting by Heather Gilbert is often very dark, especially at the outset. The scenic design by Alexander Woodward is extremely spare. It is very much as if Bella and Christopher are in a world of their own, and we are permitted to peer into their fertile minds and the strange relationship that unfolds, complete with Christopher leaving in what turns out to be a significant departure. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Reviewed October 24, 2019.