TW Production of The Sound Inside Is Very Good, Though It Can’t Hide the Play’s Faults

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By Karen Isaacs

The Sound Inside —The production is good, but the play is irritating.

The play by Anthony Rapp now streaming from TheaterWorks through April 30, is one of those plays I keep wishing I liked.

Yes, you can get caught up in the story, yet by the time the play is over, you may be as thoroughly annoyed as I am.

It is not the fault of the two actors or the directors; it all goes back to the play.

The characters are a Yale professor of creative writing, Bella Lee Baird, who is in her 50s, a loner and has just received a diagnosis of advanced stomach cancer.  Then there is Christopher Dunn, a freshman student in her “Reading Fiction for Craft” course.  The class has been discussing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Christopher shows up during office hours and rants about email, college life and rules. You can immediately assume he’s one of those students who challenges everything and disagrees with the majority, partly to be an “individual.”

But he keeps showing up and begins to talk about a novel he is writing about a freshman at Yale named Christopher and a young man he meets on the way to NYC and their interactions. Bella also begins to open up even taking him out to dinner and inviting him to her apartment one evening for talk and some wine.

From there it gets either surreal or maybe just confusing, your choice. The lines between fiction and real life are blurred in multiple ways.

For those of us teach who college freshman or who live around New Haven the small errors will annoy. A dramaturg might have pointed out to the playwright that at the beginning of the play, Bella tells us it is “late autumn” and there is a foot of snow, yet later on, she talks about the students going on “October break” which obviously occurred later than her initial monologue.  Early on, Christopher talks about the Yale-Harvard game that takes place right before Thanksgiving.

But the bigger thing is the relationship between Bella and Christopher.  Few college instructors, unless they want to live very dangerously, lose their jobs or show up in the headlines, would invite a student home and serve wine. Christopher is a freshman, supposedly 19 or so and while we realize that students that age DO consume alcohol, it is totally unacceptable for a teacher to serve it to him.

Even if you can ignore these issues, which some would consider minor, the bigger issue is what the playwright is trying to say. Is he drawing parallels to Crime and Punishment?  Did any of this happen? Is it a rumination on reality?

I never could decide. That’s a problem.

I saw the original production in NYC which started Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman. They were good.

This production that is a collaboration between TheaterWorks and Revisionist Films is attempting to blend the two media. Co-director Rob Ruggiero wrote that he and Pedro Bermúdez, the other co-director wanted to “test the boundaries between theater and film in search of some new hybrid form.”

The production was rehearsed first with the performers not physically together and then on the TheaterWorks stage before filming. For me, the result was more film than theater with extensive close ups and little in the way of background.

Maggie Bofill plays Bella as a no nonsense professor and person on the surface but hints that underneath there is much more going on. It is an excellent performance but still, you don’t ever really understand Bella.

Ephraim Birney is Christopher and while he is very good, it is hard to believe he is a 19-year-old freshman college student. This is where seeing it on stage would have helped; the audience would be farther away and thus not as aware of his mature looks.

The ending of the play is either shocking and/or tragic, but by the time I got to it, I didn’t care.

Rapp, as the expression goes, is trying to be “too clever by half.” Something gets lost.

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