Review: barebones Seizes on the Mysterious Allure of ‘The Sound Inside’


The seductiveness of The Sound Inside takes hold with a sneaky persistence. Daring to forgo the fireworks of most mysteries, the cerebral drama instead engages with characters who slowly reveal bits of themselves, as pieces of an enigmatic puzzle. 

Part of the brilliance of Adam Rapp’s Tony-nominated two-hander is how much matter-of-fact information is offered from the start, and how each offering, however trivial it may seem, or however sinister, connects to the unfolding chain of events.

Elena Passarello and Max Pavel in barebones productions’ Pittsburgh premiere of The Sound Inside, in Braddock through August 26. (Jeff Swensen)

The Sound Inside leans heavily into literary touchstones involving moral judgment. We get an early taste of what Rapp has in store when Elena Passarello, as Yale professor Bella Baird, laments how her students find empathy for the narcissistic murderer Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The author and book hold a particular fascination for the teacher and a student who is about to burst through her office door, unannounced.

In the play’s local premiere, courtesy of barebones production, Passarello’s Bella and Max Pavel as brash and brilliant Christopher Dunn find unexpected refuge in each other’s company. Not nearly Lolita but with some similar vibes, they play a teacher and student who find in each other an oasis from lives of lonely introspection.

Passarello is herself an accomplished performer, essayist and educator, making a return to the Pittsburgh stage. In a somewhat meta role, her character is a creative writing teacher, one-time author and our narrator. The Sound Inside unfolds as a fictional memoir, with direct-address monologues and telltale asides. 

Bella both describes and demonstrates her “unremarkable” existence as a middle-aged, “sneakily attractive” single woman – never married, no children – who rereads favorite books (chief among them, James Salters’ Light Years) and jots down her own catchy inner thoughts. Passarello’s Bella is mostly dispassionate, allowing only a smirk here or a cringe there, as when she describes how she watched her mother die an excruciating death from cancer. Now she, too, is facing a different form of the disease. 

The odds of survival, she has been told, are against her. 

The play focuses on Bella’s memory of that time when she first hears her cancer diagnosis, and when Pavel’s rebellious Christopher invades her life, breaking through her wall of solitude and elevating her humdrum life. His fervor is intoxicating, and she encourages his visits.

Their conversations about literature have an air of pretentiousness that dabbles in humor and the occasional flirtation. Christopher presents himself first as someone interested in discussing Bella’s class, then as an admirer of her novel, and finally, he seeks her opinion, as he is writing a novel of his own. 

Pavel endows Christopher with an enticing youthful energy, but the air of someone with a hidden agenda, In Passarello’s capable hands, Bella, likewise, is a straightforward force on the outside but haunted internally. We can’t help but wonder if she is a reliable narrator, even as that outer shell shows signs of cracking. Her growing dependence on the much younger Christopher is palpable, and lead her to ask of him something unfathomable …

I’ve already said too much. 

Elena Passarello plays a professor in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside. (Jeff Swensen)

Playing now at the intimate Barebones Black Box in Braddock, there is an up-close-and-personal feeling that suits both the play and Bingo O’Malley Stage. The mood is set with suspenseful music by Dave Eggar, and a deceptively sparse design by Tony Ferrieri and lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski. Bella’s jotted phrases are revealed in cursive writing on walls like chalkboards, making indelible some of her inner thoughts. 

With intrigue-building direction by artistic director Patrick Jordan, barebones invigorates the work that the New York Times’ Jesse Green lauded as “a gripping small-scale mystery.” The Sound Inside, in 80 engrossing minutes, to me lives more in the realm of character study – a who are they? mystery, rather than a whodunnit. 

The play marked the first trip to Broadway for a work by Rapp, who is known for dark themes with splashes of humor, small casts and intimate settings. That puts The Sound Inside perfectly in step with Jordan’s 20-year-old company, now flawlessly cast and executed in its Pittsburgh debut.


The Sound Inside is at Barebones Black Box, Bingo O’Malley Stage, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock, through August 26, 2023. Visit https://www.barebonesproductions.com/  for tickets and details; discounts for students and artists are available at the door when available.

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