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A sense of mystery and foreboding pervades the work of author Adam Rapp. Those qualities have become a hallmark of his plays like “Red Light Winter,” “The Metal Children,” “and “Nocturne,” his young adult novels, and his work as a television writer and producer, including for Showtime’s new drama, “American Rust,” starring Jeff Daniels.
“For me, what makes great theater is when I feel like there’s an undeniable sense of tension, and one of the great engines for tension is dread,” Rapp says in a recent phone interview from his home in upstate New York. “This is just going to sound really bald, but I always believe that if you can make an audience feel like something bad is going to happen, they will lean forward and engage more.”
That quality is shot through Rapp’s most recent play The Sound Inside, which SpeakEasy Stage Company is mounting at the Calderwood Pavilion, Sept. 24-Oct. 16, in its return to live performances for the first time in 18 months. The drama — which received its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival starring Mary-Louise Parker before moving to Broadway in 2019 — has been nominated for six Tony Awards, including best play. It was praised by one reviewer as “a brutally beautiful fable about how writers live to write — and then forget to live.”
In the SpeakEasy production, Elliot Norton Award winner Jennifer Rohn (Bridge Repertory Theater’s Dark Room) stars as smart, solitary Yale University professor Bella Baird. A wry, 53-year-old single woman who describes herself as “a walking Social Security number with … a handful of moth-bitten sweaters,” Bella has authored two volumes of short stories and an “under-appreciated” novel but not much since then. The play explores her growing friendship with Christopher Dunn (Nathan Malin, SpeakEasy’s Admissions), an unconventional freshman in her class. A unapologetic misfit with a slightly disturbing streak and an obsession with “Crime and Punishment” and David Foster Wallace, Christopher unleashes torrents of invective at everything from the shallowness of social media discourse to campus hipsters’ propensity for “Civil War beards and artisanal body odor.”
As the play progresses, Bella encourages her student’s writing, discusses her past and her creative dry spell, and reveals her recent cancer diagnosis. As their connection deepens, Christopher slowly unspools an unsettling story that he’s been working on, and she makes a shocking request. Fact and fiction become blurred, their fates intertwine, and the play builds to a haunting conclusion.
“It’s a story about two eccentric, lonely people finding each other in an unlikely way,” says Rapp. “They both have a very cutting wit. They’re dissatisfied in a lot of ways, and I think they’re both starving for a friend, someone who they can actually talk to and who shares a kind of deep intensity about what life is. But in its most brutal, elemental, naked form, I think the thing that connects them is this loneliness.”
He says he related deeply to both of the characters and their isolation. “When I was Christopher’s age … I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I was constantly finding myself outside of social circles and not connected to any group,” says Rapp, whose younger brother is “Rent” and “Star Trek: Discovery” actor Anthony Rapp.
It’s important, Rapp says, to maintain a spontaneity in his writing and to let the characters guide him. “That’s a rule I hold myself accountable for — don’t get too far ahead of your characters. It’s more exciting if you don’t know, because the reader will continue to turn the page. I really believe that.”
Audiences have had different perspectives about the mysteries of the play, but especially its ending, Rapp says. The father of Will Hochman, who played Christopher on Broadway, would find Rapp each time he saw the play and offer a new theory. “That was kind of cool, how it was really staying with people.”
Rapp has come a long way from his days as a fledgling writer in the late ‘90s. At the time, he’d hit a wall creatively and sunk into depression. Unable to pay his rent, he’d been living on his girlfriend’s couch when he got a call out of the blue from American Repertory Theater founding artistic director Robert Brustein, who’d read his play “Nocturne” and told Rapp that the solo drama made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
It was exactly the boost he needed. Brustein became a mentor and a champion of Rapp’s work, and he gave three of his early plays — “Nocturne,” “Animals and Plants,” and “Stone Cold Dead Serious” — their world premieres at the ART. “He was so committed to me as an artist. That was such an important, huge shot in the arm for me,” Rapp says. “He changed my life. I don’t think I would have continued writing plays if he hadn’t reached out to me.”
More than two decades later, Rapp was gratified to finally make his Broadway debut with “The Sound Inside” and earn a best play Tony nomination (the awards telecast is Sept. 26). “Honestly, I still kind of can’t believe it. I’ve had so many ups and downs in the theater,” he says. “There’s been a lot of seasons of disappointment and a lot of good work that didn’t get recognized and a lot of heartbreak. But when you do get recognized, it makes it all feel worth it.”