By Shelley A. Sackett
If your Covid Comfort Zone now includes attending indoor events, gallop on over to SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a trifecta of what makes for exalted theater: flawless script, acting and directing. This two-hander doesn’t just hit a home run over the green wall; it launches it into outer space.
That said, it still takes a leap of faith to believe that it is safe to be packed together as tightly as a fully booked economy cabin as long as everyone is fully vaccinated and masked. It took me several minutes before my anxiety leveled off and I could be entirely present for the play.
And what an extraordinary play it is.
In a nutshell, Rapp has written a 90-minute intermission-less drama about two writers: Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a 53-year-old Yale professor of creative writing who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Mailin), her student who marches to a different drummer than his peers.
Through their intellectually intimate and intricate conversations, we glimpse the moving targets of their lives’ stories and the fictional lives each has woven as cover and cover up. We also glimpse their pain, isolation, loneliness and pessimism. They are as different as night and day, as similar as two peas in a pod.
There emerges an undercurrent of dormant dread and tension underlying their relationship., but also the hint of potential relief and comfort. Their hyper-articulate, erudite dialogue takes them on a roller coaster ride, sometimes igniting storage bins of disillusion and defeat. Other times, their conversations are the magical balm that soothes their aching souls. Rapp keeps us guessing whether grief or solace lurks around every encounter, as thoroughly engaging and enjoyable as good page turner.
Under Devorah Kengmana’s brilliant lighting design, the play opens in darkness. A spotlighted Bella emerges and begins to address the audience. As if workshopping a novel, she describes her experiences, thoughts, and disappointments. She is scathing and dispassionate, especially when critiquing herself, the author of two novellas and “an under-appreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay alive.” She is also not above petty jealousy. Although she adores James Salter’s “Light Years,” rereading it every year, she refuses to teach it because “it is a rare work of fiction that continues to reveal new things with each reading…It’s so good it enrages me.”
The set (by Cristina Todesco) is sparse, dark and efficient, a single table and two chairs. When Bella addresses the audience from the table and the lighting shifts, we are transported to her office. Christopher arrives without an appointment (for which she admonishes him, but doesn’t send him away). He speaks to Bella and she speaks both directly to him and to the audience in frequent pithy asides. Alternating who gets to play narrator is a device Rapp employs to great effect throughout the play.
Christopher is a Yale misfit, surly, full of contradictions, with a chip on his shoulder and a mind as focused on and in love with writing as is Bella’s. He is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is out of step with his generation (“Twitter is for people who are terrified of solitude”) and at heart an old-fashioned romanticist (“Email’s not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort”).
In some ways, they are yin and yang; she’s all about following rules and protocol, while he simply follows his own instincts. Yet something sparks when they are together. They admire — and, surprisingly, seem to trust — each other. He loved her published works and cites long passages as he paces her office, praising her novel (after which she seems to melt, and tells him to call her Bella instead of Professor Baird). She is impressed by his ambition (he is writing a novella with himself as the protagonist) and prodigious intellect.
Under Bryn Boice’s spot on direction, the rest of the play (no spoilers here!) weaves a tapestry borne of their conversations. They become more honest and unguarded with each other, exposing an almost erotic, yet chaste, intimacy that lifts each out of his fundamental sadness. It is no surprise that Christopher’s novella bears a quote from “Crime and Punishment: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”
Jennifer Rohn brings a gorgeous nuance to Bella, imbuing her (many, many) lines with pathos, compassion and, when called for, playfulness. Her body language shifts on a dime; her vocal pacing and tone are subtle and effective.
As Christopher, Nathan Mailin brings the same qualities he did as a runaway star in ‘Admissions,’ the 2019 SpeakEasy Stage production where he debuted as a 20-year-old BU student. He has tempered and honed his style (which still has enormous range and presence) and brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have easily become a caricature in less capable hands. Individually, each is superb; together, they are simply sublime.
Cannot be recommended highly enough.
Presented by Speakeasy Stage in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct 16, 2021.
For COVID protocol, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/visit/covid-masks-vax/
For tickets and more info, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/09/the-sound-inside/