The Sound Inside, SpeakEasy Stage Company (Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through October 16. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com)
By Jules Becker
Mentor-protégé plays are not new. Think of Donald Margulies’ perceptive drama “Collected Stories” — in which a well-respected teacher-short story writer comes into conflict with her student-author. A very different kind of conflict characterizes Adam Rapp’s Tony-nominated two-character play “The Sound Inside” (2018 at Wlliamstown, 2019 on Broadway). Here a professor-novelist and short story writer faces the challenges that evolve as she meets with an unusual student who has begun writing a short novel of his own. Those meetings become a trenchantly tense drama now in a SpeakEasy Stage Hub premiere powerfully directed by Bryn Boice.
The teacher and student in question are a strong study in contrast. Bella Baird, a 53 year-old single creative writing professor at a New Haven Ivy League school (Yale of course), lives in simple school quarters — kudos to Cristina Todesco for a fittingly austere gray and black scenic design. Spirited and iconoclastic, the Illinois native thinks of French literary giant Honore de Balzac as she describes God as “a fat man with money who can still get it up” and describes herself as a hoarder of first editions of the works of Edith Wharton and Samuel Beckett. Unpretentious Baird speaks of her own novel “struggling to stay in print” and admits (to the audience who could be her class) that she published it about 20 years earlier.
Christopher Dunn, who could hail from the Victorian era, prefers penmanship to computer writing, hates Tweets and chooses to make unannounced visits to his teacher rather that schedule appointments. Even so, the Vermont student likes her “Reading Fiction for Craft” class and has even read her novel and two volumes of short stories. Ambitiously he wants to include a scene inspired by Dostoievsky in his own work. Not surprisingly, Dunn is putting his novel on a Corona typewriter.
While Rapp’s characters are very well delineated (as in his earlier, stunningly harrowing, two-person drama “Blackbird”), the twists and surprises in their relationship should make audiences give “The Sound Inside” a fully absorbed hearing. Adding substantially to that undivided attention are the ‘scenes’ from Dunn’s own work in progress — a kind of novel-within-the-play. Rapp’s talent for crisp dialogue in the exchanges between teacher and student is matched by his deft development of the New York City meeting of student Billy and seemingly penniless yet mysterious stranger Shane in the student’s novel (‘novella’ as Baird terms it).
Ultimately, the fortunes of Baird and Dunn prove as riveting as those of Billy and Shane. What will happen to the professor, who suffers from what she openly describes as a “constellation of advanced cancer tumors?” How will the student’s studies and writing fare? Also, what will come of Baird’s special request to Dunn? Rapp makes the answers both compelling and haunting.
Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin prove as compelling as Rapp’s fine play. Rohn has all of Baird’s feistiness and subtlety. Her opening expository speech establishes both the professor’s wit and her mysterious inner voice. Malin captures Dunn’s engaging elusiveness and his intrepid individuality.
Boice gives full voice to the loneliness and warring urges in both Baird and Dunn. For its part, SpeakEasy Stage has built up the kind of theater cred that brought Rapp’s strong play to the Hub even as the Tony Awards approached. Next spring this standout company will stage the actual 2021 Tony Award winner “The Inheritance” (a gay epic inspired by “Howard’s End” by gay Latino dramatist Matthew Lopez). Boston theater buffs should expect that premiere to resonate as lyrically as “The Sound Inside.”