By Bill Marx
A hatred of self and others sits, relatively neglected, at the center of Adam Rapp’s script.
The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp. Directed by Bryn Boice. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, in Boston’s South End, through October 16.
In a recent Boston Globe interview, playwright Adam Rapp suggested that what makes for “great theater … is an undeniable sense of tension, and one of the great engines for tension is dread.” Hard to argue with that, given all the various sizes and shapes dread takes in modern theater, from Samuel Beckett’s figures, teetering on the edge of oblivion, to Edward Albee’s suicidal malcontent in A Zoo Story, a far superior play (with some interesting resonances) to The Sound Inside. The catch is that a two-hander, in particular, calls for a dramatic engine that generates intimations of threat, particularly through powerful characters who jockey to outdo — or at least outplay — one another. Free-floating dread produces more yawns than tension.
For example, in Harold Pinter’s plays, people often go after each other in a verbal fight for dominance, a primal conflict for control that Sam Shepard pushes to the point of violence. Vampirism in August Strindberg gives us victims struggling, in a paranoid frenzy, to break free from a powerful will. Sorry for the long preface, but it is necessary to go over elementary territory, because The Sound Inside doesn’t crank out enough theatrical conflict to power a golf cart. The fact that so many stage critics mistake this pretentious putt-putt (whose outing on Broadway received six Tony Award nominations, including for Best Play!) for a for a sleek V-8 is depressing.
For better or worse, the pair in The Sound Outside are writers and very literary. Or at least Rapp has them dropping names galore: among them Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace (more than once), and Dostoevsky, with some attention to Crime and Punishment. The idea is to make us accept that they are highly sophisticated (or at least opinionated) consumers of culture. But few specific ideas are exchanged between the play’s insecure couple — mentioning authors is enough to establish an egghead brand. These readers are also very lonely people. Bella (Jennifer Rohn) is a middle-aged creative writing professor at Yale University who has had a couple of short story collections and a novel published to not all that much acclaim. Christopher (Nathan Malin) is an unruly student who fulminates about social media and modern technology and lives to write. He respects her as a teacher, visits her in her office, and praises her writing after he reads it. In turn, she is moved to cultivate his friendship as he grinds away on his first novel. He her and she is going to help him. Then things go awry …
No spoilers here. But you don’t care where the relationship goes because it never becomes credible. Of course, there is the mundane reality that contemporary universities have set rules for relationships between teachers and students. Would a student spit on a professor’s floor — and then be invited back to mop it up? Of more significance is that (at least in the SpeakEasy Stage production) Bella and Christopher have no sexual/emotional connection. They don’t desire each other nor do any strong conflicts erupt between them. They are Rapp’s one-note sad sacks — insecure egos that hunger for each other’s literary approval. (Pathetic artists fashioned to be pitied by the burghers in the audience.) Because approval is all that really matters, Bella also hankers for the audience’s sympathy as well — she speaks to us, a lot, about how deeply sad her life has been and is. She deserves understanding — from us. We don’t hear directly from Christopher — he sounds a minor chord amid Bella’s blues.
To the drumbeat of this miasma, Rapp adds some self-reflective shenanigans (shades of David Foster Wallace!). Is Bella a reliable narrator? Who knows? Who cares? There are readings of work from both writers that hint at what might be unnerving autobiographical disclosures — but neither Bella or Christopher probe the other, as ordinary human beings would, about these intriguing possibilities. Perhaps for the sake of helping to up the ante of … dread? There is, I think, a theatrical first in The Sound Inside. A miraculously healing deus ex machina arrives at the end — or is that a miraculously unreliable deus ex machina?
And then there is Rapp’s effusive language, which some find to be poetic. There are some striking phrases, but most of the time the rhetoric comes off as stilted, a sort of formalized confession that is more about self-admiration than revelation. Bella speaks a kind of bruised purple prose, while Christopher barks out sophomoric insults. Rohn brings a sedate neuroticism to her steady portrait of Bella, while Malin comes on far too jittery in his early scenes. He is straining to be: Weird? Amusing? The actor is stronger in the latter half, when he settles down. Bryn Boice’s direction is dutiful to Rapp’s spirit of entropy.
The Sound Inside contains a moment of genuine disturbance. It is not Bella’s ham-fisted repetition of the play’s title: “the sound inside … the sound inside … the sound inside….” It is her throwaway admission that she doesn’t like people much. A hatred of self and others sits, relatively neglected, at the center of the script. (Does Rapp care for his characters? — I am not sure.) Let me drop a literary name: Albert Camus. The protagonist of his final novel, The Fall, fights with all his self-disgusted wiles against establishing a bond between himself and others. He unconsciously disdains the notion of “natural human community.” Like Bella, he doesn’t like people. For Camus, the rejection of others was a “modern cancer,” the result of a cynicism that he “never ceased fighting to the point of exhaustion.” At a time when collective action among people and nations will be necessary for the sake of human survival, our theater companies might want to explore scripts that probe why we have grown to dislike ourselves and each other so deeply. The Sound Inside‘s tepid vision of dread rings hollow.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.