Review: SpeakEasy's 'The Sound Inside' Makes for Riveting Theater in Boston Premiere

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday September 29, 2021

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in "The Sound Inside"
Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in "The Sound Inside"  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

It is not surprising to learn that in addition to being a playwright, Adam Rapp is also a novelist with more than ten novels to his credit. This may be why the language in "The Sound Inside, " his recent Broadway play having its Boston premiere at the SpeakEasy Stage through October 16, falls on the ear like smartly written prose. People just don't talk in such perfectly wrought sentences.

What is surprising, then, is how fresh it sounds when spoken in this riveting production, directed by Bryn Boice. One reason for this authenticity is that his two protagonists are writers — Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a tenured professor in creative writing at Yale with a well-received, but little-read debut novel decades before; and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Malin), an inquisitive freshman who seeks her out to tell her how much he admires her writing and to tell her about a novel he is working on. For Bella, Christopher is a kindred spirit — a talented loner to whom she slowly warms after he visits her daily to talk of literature, particularly Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," which she is teaching in class, and which turns out to be crucial to the plot.

Jennifer Rohn in "The Sound Inside"
Jennifer Rohn in "The Sound Inside"  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

In telling his story, which runs 90 minutes without an intermission, Rapp uses a mix of narration (mostly by Bella) and dialogue. First Bella cooly describes her life, noting with little emotion that her stomach is "riddled with a constellation of tumors" and she may not have long to live. She is haunted by the recent, harrowing death of her mother, also from cancer, so Christopher's arrival acts as a welcome distraction — though, at first, he annoys her with an impromptu visit that ignores administration protocols. When told he should arrange a meeting through email, he confesses he doesn't use it. He also expresses enormous contempt for his peers with "their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor and those stupid fucking doorknobs in their ears. They're like these New Age, unshowered, tatted-out Hobbits." Rudely, he punctuates his first visit by spitting on her floor, but makes amends on his next when she takes control and makes him mop the floor.

Rapp uses the device that Martin McDonagh used so well in "The Pillowman" — that is, to weave fictional stories in with the real-life narrative, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Christopher is writing a novel and shares its Patricia Highsmith-like narrative about strangers on a train and a murder during his sessions. He also relates the plot to Bella's novel, which concerns a young runner who believes he can run through a brick wall and enter a different consciousness. (He doesn't, but people believe he did.) Both stories, especially Christopher's, dovetail in the play's narrative, which takes some unexpected turns when Bella makes an unusual demand on him.

It is difficult to describe the lure of this dark play, which pulls you in at the onset with Bella's clear-headed, if self-deprecating, synopsis of herself. She compares herself to her Social Security number, as if she were little more than a set of digits; but she is literally brought back to life with the intrusion of Christopher. Rapp characterizes their friendship with a quote from Dostoevsky that suggests there is some fatal attraction between the two.

Jennifer Rohn and.Nathan Malin in "The Sound Inside"
Jennifer Rohn and.Nathan Malin in "The Sound Inside"  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

Rapp makes great demands of his two actors: She must be convivial, but cool; smart, but not condescending; and seeming in control until she's not. He must have charm, but also be awkward, on the spectrum, and slipping away. Of the two, Bella is the more demanding — the role won Mary Louise Parker a Tony this past weekend for the show's Broadway run last year — and Jennifer Rohn is more than up to its demands. She embodies Bella's wry exterior, and can be very funny, as when she describes a one-night stand; but she also conveys her vulnerability, most notably when she turns to Christopher in an act of desperation.

Nathan Malin (so good in SpeakEasy's "Admissions" two years ago) conveys Christopher's sweet awkwardness, but hints at the darkness beneath, suggested in the play's title, which is defined by Bella in a moment when she loses complete control.

The spareness of the design — simply a table, chair, doors, and strategically-placed mirrors, plus some projections and lighting effects — make a perfect backdrop for Rapp's seductive, if loquacious, dialogue. (The set design is by Christina Todesco, costumes by Becca Jewett, lighting by Devorah Kengmana, and sound design by David Remedios.)

Bryn Boice's staging has some expressionistic touches, such as when Rohn stands center stage and is reflected in two side mirrors; but at its heart is the bond that she shaped between its two leads, who have a wonderful rapport onstage. She also is in tune with the play's darker side, which gives the work its tension and humor. Bella has a tale to tell, and it is well worth a listen.

"The Sound Inside" continues at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through October 16. visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].