Studio 54, and the famed mirrored walls that line its entryway, have never been so dark, so quiet, so enveloped by the silent pensiveness and isolation of Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” or so haunted by the hush of reading in the dim light, alone.
Finally Rapp, the “Red Light Winter” Pulitzer Prize finalist, novelist and screenwriter, whose thirty-odd plays have been celebrated in small theaters and acting classrooms for twenty years, has made his Broadway debut. And what he’s brought to its stage, is a play as unlikely as it is deeply soul-stirring. On the opening night red carpet, flanked by his own reflection in the mirrored hallways of the Studio 54 theatre, the playwright reflected on the rapture of bringing “The Sound Inside” to Broadway.
“I had sort of consigned that this wouldn’t happen, like ten years ago,” Rapp said. “I just thought this was not in the cards for me, and when this happened last summer, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I just thought I had this little play. We thought we had something small and intimate, and we didn’t have big designs of anything.”
“I couldn’t have expected it in a million years,” he continued, “because it’s a very dark, language-driven play about writers, and that’s not necessarily a commercial property. I thought I’d be one of those ‘Oh, he did a lot of off-Broadway work’ writers, but I managed to pull it off thanks to Jeffrey Richards and Mary-Louise putting her name above the title.”
“The Sound Inside,” starring Mary-Louise Parker in a tour-de-force return to Broadway and an evergreen Will Hochman (who also makes his Broadway debut), is possessed by the loneliness of its two characters. One is an unmarried novelist and Ivy League professor named Bella, who’s recently learned her stomach is a “constellation of tumors;” the other is her student, equally alone, socially inept and cursed by the clawing need to become an author. As they weave a small world between them, each engaged in their own writing and consumed by that task, it becomes hauntingly and eerily unclear who is living outside of each other’s prose.
“My mother died when she was 55 of the same cancer that Bella describes her mother dying of, and I’m 51, and I started to think about where I was in my life and what if I became ill,” Adam Rapp continued as he reflected on the play’s beginnings. “I started to really contend with that, and it was haunting me a lot. I was thinking about my mom, and I was thinking how writers and artists, in order to do our work, we seize alone time and solitude, and that can actually drive people away. It’s about how you arrive at a point in your life when there aren’t a lot of people around, asking ‘how did we arrive at this place?’ And I think we all struggle with that, in a strange way.”
Director David Cromer, an ascended master of the intricately intimate Broadway stage, admitted he was intimated by the task of placing Rapp’s contemplative work before a Broadway audience — especially a play that turns on the cavernous silence of solitude and the heady nature of a novelist’s world.
“I was scared by the idea that, while Adam is a wildly prolific and incredibly brilliant playwright, he wrote this thing that was mostly prose, intentionally,” he told Variety on the red carpet. “He can write a play overnight if he wants to, and it will be great. He is so wildly prolific, but he wrote this thing that demanded to feel like you were reading literature, alone in a room.”
But, sometimes, good, deserving theater — theater that stuns its audience into reflection from powerful writing, not pyrotechnics — does make it to Broadway.
“There’s just alchemy sometimes, you can’t really guess,” Parker said of the experience, after her bow. “There’s just a collision of different energies, and in a moment people hear something. Feeling isolated, finding somebody in a surprising moment that you connect to, that’s kind of an indefinable relationship, and you can’t really say what the relationship is. There’s something really romantic about that.”
“It’s just the two of us,” summed Hochman, taking in the breath of his Broadway debut, his youth as much in contrast to the storied walls of the Studio 54 theatre as his character is to the dying professor before him. “There’s no big music. There’s no explosions. It’s just two people in the darkness talking to each other.”
“The Sound Inside” plays through Jan. 2020.