By James V. Ruocco
The two characters - Bella Lee Baird, Christopher Dunn - at the center of Adam Rapp's immensely moving two-character play "The Sound Inside" interest us immediately as their troubled tale takes flight with stories and conversations that are real, raw, interesting and confessional.
Though it deals openly and smartly with elements, dialogue and information that merge agreeably to fit its fast-paced 90-minute format, the play itself and its eventual outcome adapts a powerful and profound hook and voice that draws us in with intelligible persuasion, ambition and conscience.
Rapp, as playwright, is original in his approach to the actual story, forcing us to listen attentively to every word and tick and willingly go along for the ride, compelled to understand and enjoy his complicated character exploration, which finishes strong and leads to unexpected plot twists and discoveries that you never saw coming. A master craftsman, he creates dialogue that is so beautifully expressed and cultivated, the engagement between actor and audience is riveting, voyeuristic, concentrated and wonderfully connected. The monologues, of which there are many, are delivered with the actors facing and speaking directly into the camera. Third-party narration, adapts a similar process.
"The only sound was the chorus of neighborhood cicadas blending with the hum of the refrigerator."
"I'm suddenly struck by the notion of how one becomes remote in one's life. Like a forgotten object on a shelf."
This is one of those plays where wholeness and insight are markedly driven into a work where every word, pause, beat and breath shifts time and place seamlessly through a very impassioned, arresting lens. Rapp surprises. He ridicules. He laughs. He cries. He catches us off guard. He takes us down one path, then switches gears midstream. He kicks us in the ass. He shakes us senseless. He shocks. He overwhelms. And lastly, he moves through minds and memories with the fluidity of a great artist and consciousness that's beautifully positioned and told by just two people.
A character breakdown, goes something like this.
Bella, a 53-year-old creative writing professor at New Haven's Yale University, has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer (her stomach is riddled with a constellation of tumors), which prompts issues regarding her weekly classes, treatments, chemotherapy, hair loss, weight loss and possible suicide when and if she can't handle her pending death sentence. Christopher, an angst-ridden student at Yale, who, is taking her writing class hates emails, following rules, campus guidelines and fancy coffee, but finds obvious pleasure in their student-office sessions and casual dinner dates. Eventually, he talks about his novel-in-the-making, his life as a student, his love of celebrated authors and their novels and scatted memories about family life, sex, dating and puberty. As expected, he also develops an attraction for his female mentor.
At TheaterWorks/Hartford, the ideal venue for "The Sound Inside," Rob Ruggerio ("American Son," "Relativity," "Next to Normal") and filmmaker Pedro Bermudez ("Hasta Manana," "Antifaz") serve as co-directors. Bermudez also plays a major role in the project's editing and cinematography alongside Revisionist Films. Staging the production, Ruggerio adapts a simplistic mindset that adheres to the online streaming process most advantageously. He knows what he wants. He knows how to frame it. He doesn't waste a moment. He also avoids the staging curse that could reduce "The Sound Inside" to just another photographed stage play. Here, monologues, narration and character interaction are fueled by smart directorial choices that give the story its passion, its dramatic weight, its adrenaline and its ever shifting perspective. Bermudez, in turn, takes his directorial cue from Ruggerio, moving his camera freely about by always being in the right place at the right time. His use of close ups, long shots and well-honed cinematography plunges his audience into the throes of the ongoing action unobtrusively. Original music composed and performed by Billy Bivona only furthers that concept.
"The Sound Inside" stars Maggie Bofill ("A Doll's House, Part 2," "Viral Monologues") as Bella Lee Baird and Ephraim Birney ("Admissions," "The Good Person of Szechwan") as Christopher Dunn. As Bella, Bofill exhibits a polished, detailed performance that is driven, sardonic, truthful, humorous and reflective. Here, as in Long Wharf's "A Doll's House, Part 2" (she played Nora), she dazzles in terrifically smart, intuitive and passionate ways and never once misses a choreographed beat or change in character or direction. She is totally in the moment, delivering extended monologues, narration and conversation that prompt immediate attention and reaction. Playing the part of Christopher, Birney is wonderfully direct and powerful, propelling "The Sound Inside" to its surprise, shocking and inevitable conclusion. As he moves from charm and likeability to rage and grief, he crafts a performance that easily gets under our skin. His paring with Bofill is both natural, affecting and attention-grabbing.
A complex, vital and urgent piece of theatre, "The Sound Inside" unfolds with an emotional zest and amplitude that is impossible to resist. It is clever, connected and potent. The performances of the two principals are complex, weighty and marvelously tangled. Ruggerio and Bermudez orchestrate the proceedings with flair and fluidity. And Rapp's dialogue abounds with focus, fascination and tension, thus, making "The Sound Inside" one of the most creative, intelligent productions o the 2021 season.
The TheaterWorks/Hartford production of "The Sound Inside" is being streamed online, now through April 30. Tickets are $25 plus a $3 processing fee. To book a performance, go to twhartford.org. Once the transaction is completed, a virtual watch link will be sent via email to the address you provided during checkout.