There are some things the Goodman Theatre gets right with playwright Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” the first of three, streamed-live-from-the-theater productions planned for the aptly named “Live” series. But there are more things Rapp gets so wrong, that the drama starts to seem like a satire about emo English major undergrads and idiosyncratic professors who involve their students in their own dire health issues.
On the plus side: directed by Robert Falls, “The Sound Inside” is the closest I’ve come since the lockdown to feeling like I’m in a real theater with actual flesh-and-blood (as opposed to Zoomed) actors. That’s due, in part, to video director Christiana Tye. She gives the production a cinematic flair without compromising the sense of immediacy that’s embedded in live theater. In the close-ups, the vulnerability of tenured Yale English professor Bella (Mary Beth Fisher) and her troubled, enigmatic student Christopher (John Drea) is raw and unmistakable.
The wide shots create the sensation of that insular academic world swallowed within the vastness of a much murkier, larger one, both beautifully rendered by designers Jason Lynch (lighting), Richard Woodbury (original music and sound) and Paul Deziel (projection design).
Set designer Arnel Sancianco has reconfigured the Goodman’s smaller Owen theater to accommodate the minimalist but immersive set where Fisher and Drea deliver performances strong enough to render Rapp’s florid dialogue tolerable. “The Sound Inside” aspires toward elegiac, literary meditation on mortality but delivers mostly pretentious banalities.
Fisher’s Bella lights up like a sparkler when she’s discussing literature and dims when her world steps outside the boundaries of great novels. Fisher is a master at playing sardonic women with a brutally honest sense-of-self; When Bella describes herself as “four or five degrees beyond mediocre,” it’s with brutally pragmatic awareness.
Drea’s take on Christopher effectively veers from winsome and abashed to volatile and obsessed within the space of a few breaths. The intensity of the latter makes the character compelling, but the plot highly unlikely.
After his first emotional outburst, it’s difficult unto impossible to imagine any professor meeting with Christopher alone in their office. He shows up without an appointment and his vicious, largely unprovoked, outbursts (Twitter and baristas incur particular wrath) seem to skirt sociopathy, especially when he spits on the floor. His insistence that he doesn’t use email seems about as probable as a new Sylvia Plath novel rising from tomb of Honoré de Balzac. This is 21st century Yale, not some off-grid sect.
At one point, Christopher goes briefly catatonic. His eyes glaze over. He stops responding. Bella waves her hand in front of his face to no avail. Does she seek medical attention? No. She doesn’t seem particularly alarmed about being alone in her office with a student who spits, yells, talks about an uncle who had sex with a taxidermied pheasant, and goes abruptly, completely non-verbal.
Rapp’s attempt at having Bella and Christopher discuss literature wouldn’t be out of place in an English 101 survey course covering the likes of Dostoyevsky, James Salter, J.D. Salinger and Theodore Dreiser. But when Bella talks to Christopher about Sunday mornings defined by naked intertwined limbs, it feels one step removed from a Sidney Sheldon novel.
What holds “The Sound Inside” together is the urgency that the live feed gives it. Throughout, it rests on the undercurrent of tension that invariably accompanies live shows playing live and in real time.
Would that the material were on a par with the medium and the performances.