Trust Your Gut: “The Sound Inside”

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Sound Inside. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Bryn Boice
Cast: Nathan Malin, Jennifer Rohn

Sept. 24 – Oct. 16, 2021
527 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02116
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CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of self-harm.

Review by Kitty Drexel

“It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” 

– From The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes

BOSTON, Mass. — In watching SpeakEasy’s production of The Sound Inside, I was reminded of Roland Barthes’ infamous essay, The Death of the Author. The Death of the Author is an essay that argues for stripping an author’s intentions and personal biography from a reader’s interpretation of their writing. A reader should separate the author from their art. 

Barthes says writing is intended to be read by others. Regardless of the author’s intentions, the reader will formulate their own understanding of the work. The reader’s interpretation is no less valid than the author’s. 

This concept, while greatly simplified here, can be applied to an audience member watching a play. No matter what the playwright, director, or cast and crew may intend, the audience will develop their own opinions based on what they see. The show no longer belongs to the artists once it hits the eyes of an audience. Some themes and symbols may be universal, but their interpretation is highly individual. 

So we shouldn’t assume that Adam Rapp ostracized himself to write his lonely characters in The Sound Inside. Even if Rapp were a lonely, introverted member of Yale’s intelligentsia (he isn’t), the reader would be under no obligation to consider the similarities between Rapp’s here-fabricated personal life to his play. We are allowed to use our imaginations to interpret the work just as Rapp used his to write it. 

In The Sound Inside, we meet Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn). A mature and independent creative writing professor at Yale University. Prof. Baird leads a quiet, tenured life. She has few friends; she’s single; it’s been seventeen years since her last published book. She appears isolated but content.  

Baird is walking through her sleepy, privileged life when she meets human-wrecking ball Christopher Dunn (Nathan Malin). Christopher is a student in Baird’s class. He has no patience for social niceties. He doesn’t believe in email. He is morally opposed to signing up for Prof. Baird’s office hours despite her insistence. He loves Bella’s writing. Christopher is nearly as lonely as Baird. They take to each other like magnets. 

Jennifer Rohn in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Sound Inside. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship over lengthy discussions of Christopher’s novel. The boundaries between their friendship skew just like the boundaries between Christopher and his self-named character in his novel. The Sound Inside is about how writing can become an extension of the writer, extreme loneliness, and the division between fact and fiction. 

The Sound Inside is one of those rare shows that defies even a detailed synopsis. Yes, this show is about two characters who reach across the deeply inappropriate power divide of their teacher-student relationship to recognize their kindred connection. But, it’s about so much more than just human relationships. It examines the emotional connection artists make with their art. It discusses the expectations people make of others by sharing experiences. The assumptions we make without realizing it. 

Adam Rapp has written a near-perfect play about a professor so isolated that she can’t tell the difference between fabrication and anecdotal evidence. Rapp’s script is too busy namedropping the literary elite to allow for plotholes. Reality is reduced to Prof. Bella Baird and Christopher Dunn. 

What we don’t know about them could fill volumes, but none of it seems to matter because Rapp’s lens is reduced to such a fine focus on our heroes. Their intentions are what matter. We want to believe the best of Bella and Christopher so we do.  

Rapp’s script is comprised of monologues with some shared scenes between two monologists. Baird starts the show with an actual monologue. It continues until Christopher is introduced. Christopher takes up the monologue but passes it off to Baird. This continues until the last act of the show when Baird carries it home to its end.

Rohn and Malin pass the weight of the performances to each other flawlessly. They are symbiotes. They breathed together. It wasn’t astonishing at first but then they kept doing it. Breath – line of dialogue – breath – POV shift – breath. It was uncanny. 

Rohn as Prof. Bella Baird is polished and wise. Rohn has entwined herself so thoroughly in the character of Baird that’s difficult to know who was acting who. There’s a moment in the play, interpreted by the audience as comedic, that was particularly rousing. Baird shares a mediocre sexual experience with a stranger in a depressing hotel room. 

Rohn relates Baird’s debasement to us with self-deprecating pathos like an out-of-body experience. This is a woman who would rather have a bad, unfulfilling sexual encounter than none at all. It’s a depressing tale and a common one. Who hasn’t done something unwise and embarrassing out of desperation? I know I have. 

Whether by Rapp’s intention or by Rohn and Malin’s, we’re given the impression that Baird is going to do something rash with either this random stranger at a hotel bar or Christopher. Depressed people with no social net to catch them make stupid decisions. The stranger is the better, more legal choice but it isn’t safer. We don’t know enough about Christopher to guess his motivations or instincts. 

What we do know is supplied by Malin. Rapp writes Christopher as a neurotic, pedantic introvert who won’t take responsibility for his own emotions. Malin’s interpretation gives him a sweet, sensitive side so he’s like a loud puppy with extra-large feet he hasn’t grown into. We could easily write off Christopher. Malin’s work prevents us from doing that. 

They make a good pair. They are sympathetic characters and we sympathize with them. 

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Sound Inside. Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

When The Sound Inside deviates from our expectations, we are in shock. I was in shock. I thought this was going to be a Harold and Maude story. It isn’t. It’s another beast entirely, and that’s a little scary. 

The Sound Inside isn’t a scary play but it contains suspense. It is mysterious and a good way to celebrate the Halloween season. Rapp defies our expectations on emotional and mental levels. He writes Baird and Christopher as writers capable of creating new realities that closely resemble our own. Their skill is such that, by the end of the production, we don’t know who or what to believe anymore. Fact and fiction are blurred even though we’re warned by both characters that the artist and the art are not equivalent. I left having more questions about the play than I did before I got to the theatre. 

If a viewer is looking for realism in their theatre, The Sound Inside is not it. It flows too well from scene to scene. Its characters get along too easily. Their questions receive answers too quickly. Rapp does this to mislead the audience. We’re complacent in our belief that we think we know what will happen until the final act. It’s elegantly but frustratingly done. No wonder this script received a 2020 Tony Award nomination for best play. 

The Sound Inside will mean different things to different people. Remember that multiple, seemingly contrary interpretations of art can be true. Opinions aren’t facts. But, that doesn’t prevent people from treating them like facts. The deeper the emotion, the more one believes in the validity of their opinion. Emotions are wily like that.  

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