The Sound Inside Speaks Volumes at 4th Wall Theatre Company

Kim Tobin-Lehl and Christian Tannous in 4th Wall Theatre Company’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside.
Kim Tobin-Lehl and Christian Tannous in 4th Wall Theatre Company’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside. Photo by Gabriella Nissen
It’s not every day that a play goes out of its way to name check various great works of literature, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and J.D. Salinger to James Salter and David Foster Wallace. But that’s exactly what you get, for good reason, in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, now playing at 4th Wall Theatre Company.

The approximately 90-minute-long two-hander begins with Bella Lee Baird, our self-described “unremarkable narrator.” Bella is a professor of creative writing at Yale. She is middle aged and never married, has no kids, and is now 17 years removed from the publication of her first and only novel. One day during office hours, Christopher Dunn, a freshman in her Reading Fiction for Craft course appears – without an appointment. In short order, we learn that despite being a member of Gen Z, emailing is “not his style,” he thinks Twitter is “the mother of mental syphilis,” and apparently has an eyebrow-raising habit of drawing, among other things, naked toddlers. He’s also writing a novel.

As they get to know each other, Bella, to her shock, realizes that Christopher seems to be there not to discuss his writing, but to hang out. Their relationship grows, eventually moving from the academic safety of Bella’s office, to a local restaurant, and then her home. Whatever exactly their relationship is budding into gets nipped, first by Christopher taking one giant step back and then by an unexpected medical diagnosis for Bella. She has cancer, and it’s advanced. With no interest in the future she sees before her, she starts making plans and here’s a hint, those plans involve Googling painless ways to die. When she finds what she’s looking for, she realizes she’s going to need an “injection buddy.” Guess who she thinks of. Christopher has a condition, though. First, Bella has to read his manuscript.

During one exchange, both Christopher and Bella say the other’s answer to a question “sounds like writing,” and that can be said of Rapp’s script in general. It distinctly sounds like writing. It tells, more than shows – literally, Bella narrates the story to the audience as it happens – and, unlike that old writing adage that says realistic dialogue should sound like what a person would say if they had an extra second to think before speaking, each line sounds like it’s had extra days, weeks, to be composed.

But like Bella tells Christopher late in the script, when she comments that his (unintentional) use of mixed metaphors is perfect because his narrator is a freshman in college who would mix his metaphors, it’s perfectly stylized to these two characters who share a deep love of literature and are, at heart, writers. It’s also incredibly evocative, clever, and downright funny at times (a too-detailed recounting of a sex-capade that occurs with a Thanksgiving episode of Everybody Loves Raymond playing in the background comes to mind).

The “purple prose” of Rapp’s work is distancing, intentionally so as it’s used by its characters, and could detract from the humanity of the characters in the wrong hands, but this is where Kim Tobin-Lehl and Christian Tannous come in.

Tobin-Lehl brings such depth to Bella, so that no matter how disimpassioned her narration seems to want to be, how neutral it’s clear Bella would like to be as she tells the story, her emotion still slips through in her voice, in her eyes, and in her gestures. Though Tobin-Lehl wobbled a few too many times delivering her lines, it’s clear that all the ingredients are here the powerhouse performance we expect from her. In particular, watching as Tobin-Lehl’s Bella sits on the floor, arms around her knees, rocking back and forth, and staring up in awe as Christopher talks about her book – talk about magic moments.

Opposite Tobin-Lehl is Christian Tannous as the very weird and very opinionated Christopher Dunn. He’s got the certitude of youth going in his performance, an unnerving intensity, and a barely restrained energy that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s hard to guess where Rapp’s play is going as you’re watching, and a big reason for that is the wildcard that is Christopher Dunn, an aspect of the character that Tannous seems to relish playing.

Director K. Lorrel Manning shepherds Tobin-Lehl and Tannous through the layered complexities of Rapp’s script beautifully, while also making great use of the stage space. Ryan McGettigan’s set is bleak and bare, and under Christina Giannelli’s lighting designs it’s also dark and shadowy, and just as elusive as Rapp’s script. Giannelli makes effective use of the spotlight, isolating the characters and leaving much of the world shrouded in mystery, with occasional punctuations, such as Bella’s visit with an oncologist, which happens under an even starker sterile white light.

Trees – tall, dead and skinny – loom behind the action, and small stacks of books sit around the set. The props, by Corey Nance, are utilitarian, and few and far between – a chair here, a table and two chairs there. Some mugs and plates, a mop, and Bella’s ever-present legal pad. There’s also a refrigerator hidden in the wall, the reveal of which is way too pleasing. Paige A. Willson’s costumes are just as practical – though Tobin-Lehl’s color palette situates her interestingly within the set – as are Robert Leslie Meek’s sound designs, with the transitional music, a haunting piano tune, used memorably.

Like all playwrights, like all authors, Rapp is in the business of storytelling, and telling stories he does in The Sound Inside. Though, as Dostoyevsky writes in Crime and Punishment, “a hundred suspicions don’t make a proof,” and that’s about where Rapp leaves us at the end of his play, refusing to give any clear answers. It’s not frustrating though. With the talent at 4th Wall, The Sound Inside is exactly what it needs to be – thought-provoking, enigmatic, and endlessly compelling.

Performances of The Sound Inside will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. Through February 11. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit $17-$53.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.