In outward appearance, Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” verges on cliché: A pair of inveterate loners find each other, bond over their shared love of literature, and finally break out of their solitude.
But that barely scratches the surface of “The Sound Inside.” And you have to look below that surface to fully experience this muted but potent drama, for that’s where the real action is.
Given a suitably austere staging at SpeakEasy Stage Company by director Bryn Boice on Cristina Todesco’s set, “The Sound Inside” registers as a combination of character study, meditation on mortality, portrait of an unlikely friendship, examination of the writing life, and psychological mystery.
Plot-wise, the play doesn’t go in the direction you might think it will, and it doesn’t try to answer every question it raises. Indeed, what gives “The Sound Inside” its powerful undertow is that it doesn’t suggest there necessarily is an answer to every question it raises.
Jennifer Rohn plays Bella Baird, a dryly self-aware creative writing professor at Yale who several years earlier had published a good but little-read novel. Now in her 50s, Bella has just been diagnosed with stage 2 metastatic stomach cancer. Her own mother’s death, which she describes in harrowing physical detail, is fresh in her mind.
As she confronts this medical crisis, Bella appears to have no friends to lean on. “At some point I guess I just stopped liking people,’’ she explains.
Then she meets freshman Christopher Dunn, an aspiring novelist from Vermont who is bursting with ideas and opinions about the practice of writing fiction and just about everything else. Christopher is portrayed by Nathan Malin, returning to the stage where he made such a striking impression two years ago in Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” while still a student at BU.
Christopher is given to screeds that make him sound like a present-day Holden Caulfield, such as this broadside against hipster culture: “It’s the baristas who really freak me out. With their Civil War beards and artisanal body odor and those stupid [expletive] doorknobs in their ears. They’re like these New Age, unshowered, tatted-out Hobbits.”
J.D. Salinger is just one of many novelists name-checked in “The Sound Inside,” some others being James Baldwin, Honoré de Balzac, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, James Salter, Mary Shelley, Jonathan Franzen — and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Especially Dostoevsky.
During a discussion in Bella’s class about the killing of the elderly pawnbroker and her sister in “Crime and Punishment,” Christopher suddenly announces: “Someday I’m going to write a moment like that.” He is fascinated by the murderer Raskolnikov, especially, says Christopher, “how he feels so much.”
During a visit to her office, he tells Bella he is at work on a novel. It’s about a Yale student much like himself who takes a journey to New York with a new acquaintance. In subsequent visits the student updates the professor on each new chapter, and the details grow increasingly unsettling. Bella, for her part, has a very big favor to ask of Christopher.
Both Rohn and Malin expertly navigate the complexities of the spiritual kinship between Bella and Christopher, suggesting that they both operate in the belief that human existence is a story where each of us is not just protagonist but author.
In small, subtle ways, Malin makes palpable Christopher’s need for connection and his determination to conceal that need beneath his aggressive-misfit persona, even as the actor skillfully keeps the character just beyond the reach of our full understanding.
Rohn’s portrayal of Bella is superbly detailed throughout. What’s especially impressive is the piercing force Rohn brings to those moments when Bella’s self-possession crumbles in the face of revelation, such as when she brokenly realizes it’s been two years since she had sex, underscoring one of the costs of solitude. When Christopher tells her how much he loved her novel, she seems moved to an extent that seems to surprise even her.
On Sunday night, Mary-Louise Parker won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Bella Baird on Broadway. “The Sound Inside” itself — which premiered in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival — was nominated for Best Play, but lost to Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance.” (Next spring, ”The Inheritance” will be SpeakEasy’s final production of its 2021-2022 season. Not a bad pair of bookends to a year.)
The good news about the fine SpeakEasy production of “The Sound Inside,” apart from its intrinsic quality, is that it suggests the play was built to last.
Seen at a certain angle, it is a sustained tribute to literary craftsmanship. Rapp’s own lapidary writing helps to make his play’s case for the value of that craftsmanship in the making of meaning. There are no wasted words in “The Sound Inside,’’ and there are no missing words, either.
THE SOUND INSIDE
Play by Adam Rapp
Directed by Bryn Boice
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 16. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com