Pop quiz question: Can you name a single writer darker than Dostoevsky?

The options are few, but I hereby nominate Adam Rapp, the playwright and novelist whose vision is so unrelievedly grim he makes that despairing giant of Russian literature seem like, oh, maybe P.G. Wodehouse.

Rapp’s singularly gloomy weltanschauung is on stark display in his latest play, “The Sound Inside,” which has opened with a crypt-like creak at Studio 54 — of all places, one is tempted to add, given the building’s storied history of festivity. On the menu in this two-hander, starring the reliably excellent Mary-Louise Parker and a talented comparative newcomer Will Hochman, are a terminal cancer diagnosis, suicide and a vicious and senseless murder.

And yet, oddly, the play still qualifies as one of Rapp’s tamer excursions into the nether regions of human misbehavior and misfortune. In previous plays Rapp has employed absurdism and extreme stylization in dramatizing his characters’ darker impulses. “The Sound Inside” is a more straightforward dissection of the complicated relationship between a Yale literature professor, Parker’s Bella, and one of her students, Hochman’s Christopher.

The play is also perhaps Rapp’s finest so far, in a career spanning at least two decades.

If you hear a foreshadowing of damnation-by-faint-praise in that assessment, perhaps you’re aware that when working for a local daily paper I eventually recused myself from writing about Rapp’s work because I had reviewed so many of his plays with such unending disfavor that I thought it best to give us both a break. 

I can’t say “The Sound Inside,” which marks Rapp’s Broadway debut, has caused me to reconsider my general opinion of his work, but given the material he has chosen to explore here, the play feels slightly more truthful and humane than most of its predecessors. Its effectiveness is abetted in this regard both by the two formidably good performances from Parker and Hochman, and by the stylish production from director David Cromer, which neither shies away from the play’s bleak tone nor ignores the welcome flashes of wit and humor that occasionally flare, like quickly sputtering sparklers sending glimmers of light into a looming cave.

Parker’s role is by far the largest. Bella narrates much of the play, recounting how her interaction with a student whom she at first deems problematic — Christopher is too tech-averse and just plain ornery to schedule a proper meeting during her office hours — grows more intimate as they find in each other a soul mate of sorts. 

Both are solitary creatures. Christopher observes at one point that Bella has virtually no friends, at which she takes mild offense before realizing that it’s pretty much true. She hasn’t had a date, for instance, in a couple of years — and doesn’t seem to care. Christopher, meanwhile, feels out of step with most of his fellow students, scorning the cultural domination of social media and technology — particularly Twitter, at which Christopher takes hilarious aim in one of the evening’s funnier passages. (I’m with you, Christopher.) He’s producing his novel-in-progress on a typewriter.

That Dostoevsky reference above is not plucked from thin air. Among the texts Bella is teaching in her literature for aspiring writers class is “Crime and Punishment,” and the allusion is not incidental. Much of what transpires in “The Sound Inside” should probably not be divulged, because it depends to a certain degree, as does much of Rapp’s work, on his ability to administer grisly plot twists like electric shocks. 

But I can say that eerie echoes of that novel’s famous protagonist, Raskolnikov, begin to appear in the antsy and aggressive but seemingly even-keeled young Christopher. The more we learn about Christopher’s novel, which is plainly autobiographical, the more we sense that he may not be as psychologically secure as he at first seems. 

Meanwhile, Bella is struggling with a diagnosis of malignant stomach cancer. Her mother died of a rare cancer at 54, and Bella’s doctors give her a 20% to 25% chance of survival. Parker is at her most dryly funny — and few actors can do dryly funny with her sly skill — when describing her sardonic attempts to convince the doctors that maybe they are being a little pessimistic. Deglamorized — she wears a shlubby sweater with a shirt sloppily flopping from underneath it, and slouchy pants — Parker draws her character with a taut, closed-in quality and an austere unsentimentality. Hochman brings a softly febrile intensity to his performance that achieves maximal effect with minimal means.

The tale of a professor and a student who find themselves growing more friendly might seem to be heading down a one-way street, but Rapp’s plays are predictable only in the dim view they take of human experience. I won’t spoil the non-fun by revealing the thorny paths the plot eventually travels, except to say that things at least don’t end grimly for both characters. 

A minimal set by Alexander Woodward, and delicate lighting in hues ranging from crepuscular to barely visible by Heather Gilbert, might not seem ideal for the large Studio 54 stage. But they effectively underscore the characters’ emotional isolation, save for the tentative solace they begin to find in their relationship.

Perhaps more surprising is how Rapp’s reliance on direct address — even when Bella and Christopher are together, they are mostly talking to us in great gusts of narration rather than simply interacting — actually helps collapse the distance between characters and audience. 

Excessive narration is usually dramatically deadening, but it mostly works here, in part because both characters are writers (Bella has published three books of fiction) who seem to be living their lives at a distance from themselves, continually narrating their experience — or, in the case of Christopher, having his experience seemingly taken over by the possibly unreliable and unpleasant narrator of his novel.

As with many of Rapp’s prior plays, I did not find “The Sound Inside” to be a wholly credible reflection of even the direst extremes of human experience. And Bella’s character is drawn in considerably more depth than the rather cryptic Christopher. The play is also drenched in literary allusions — from James Salter to David Foster Wallace to Jonathan Franzen to Robert Coover and of course the big D — that are both audience-flattering and show-offy. (If you’re allergic to such name-dropping, bring a hard hat.) 

But considered merely as a high-toned horror story written for the stage — and we don’t see many of those these days — the play is reasonably successful. Stephen King is probably not a sufficiently highbrow writer for Rapp to appreciate – although he tosses in an allusion to Shirley Jackson — but here Rapp has managed to evoke, in his own style, the kind of spine-chilling effect that King and Jackson are known for. And I mean that as a compliment. Really!

 

“The Sound Inside” opened at Studio 54 on Thurs., Oct. 17, 2019. 

Creative: Written by Adam Rapp; Music by Daniel Kluger; Directed by David Cromer; Scenic Design by Alexander Woodward; Costume Design by David Hyman; Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert; Sound Design by Daniel Kluger; Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne. 

Producers: Jeffrey Richards, Lincoln Center Theater, Rebecca Gold, John Hart, Eric Falkenstein, Salman Vienn Al-Rashid, Spencer Ross, Filmnation Entertainment/Faliro House, Jane Bergère, Caiola Productions, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Ken Greiner, Gemini Theatrical Investors, LLC, Scott H. Mauro, Jayne Baron Sherman, Jacob Soroken Porter and Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman.