Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a writing student who understands his odd-duck teacher and shares her values. Their intense Platonic relationship is all the more touching for being, of necessity, so brief and, in the end, so confoundingly dramatic.
Parker plays Bella Baird, a 53-year-old creative writing professor who lives and works in the most dismal of environments, courtesy of Alexander Woodward’s unsparing set designs. Her office is a gray cube with not a drop of color to give it a hint of life. Equally drained of life, her home offers no joy, not even a sense of comfort. (Pillows? Rugs? Don’t make me laugh.) Even her work wardrobe, supplied by David Hyman, is rendered in dark hues that reduce her to a slender shade who blends into the background of every room.
This overwhelming sense of depression is externalized even more dramatically in Heather Gilbert’s lighting design. The show opens in deep darkness, and only grudgingly, it seems, provides some warming lights for Bella and the heartbreaking monologues she delivers mainly to herself, then gradually to Christopher, and from time to time, directly to the audience.
There isn’t a hair out of place in the basic structure of the piece, and helmer David Cromer must have counted every last one of those hairs before allowing them onstage. Not a breath of air, not a sliver of light, not a nuance of dialogue gets away from this master manager. The sense of control is absolute, and some might find it claustrophobic. Or too manipulative. But for those who can survive by taking shallow breaths, it’s perfect.
You’d never know it to look at her, but Bella is a hoot. She lives almost entirely in her head, which is where she stores her scathing wit and deepest secrets. But for some reason, she’s decided to share those secrets with us. Her range of topics starts with God, whom she describes as “a fat man with money who can still get it up.” After describing some of his unlovely qualities (bad breath, gout, short penis), she says that her God is basically “a perverted 18th century French novelist” – specifically, Honore de Balzac.
After moving on to discuss certain favorite authors (James Salter – good for her), she grows more personal, sharing such intimate secrets as her state of health, which will become more important as she and Christopher become close friends. And look at her, laughing at herself. “Like many single, self-possessed women who’ve managed to find solid footing in the slippery slopes of higher education, I’ve been accused of being a lesbian. And a witch. …and a collector of cat calendars.”
No sooner have we enjoyed that laugh than she swerves off into some truly harrowing memory of her mother’s death. But finally, we’re in her class on Reading Fiction for Craft, where a freshman named Christopher Dunn stops everyone cold with the announcement that he intends to write a scene as powerful as Dostoevsky’s scene with the pawnbroker.
Soon, Christopher is making drop-in visits to Bella’s office, where he occasionally comes down from his literary mountain to share something more relatable to a non-academic audience. He prefers writing in longhand to using his computer, hates email, and really loathes twitter, which he declares is the medium “for people who are terrified by the idea of solitude.”
And so it goes. They discuss each other’s writing. They drift apart. They get back together. As their friendship deepens, we watch Parker diving deeper into Bella’s inner life. We watch Hochman loosen up on the sardonic sophomoric humor and allow Christopher to become less schematic, more serious, more honest. And we watch Rapp slip a rein on their brainy, but verbose dialogue, chopping sentences, skating over individual words.
There’s something hypnotic about the whole exercise. Parker is the hypnotist and her ravishing voice is the Piper’s song, drawing us closer and closer until – perhaps — we are perfectly happy to follow her off a cliff.