Nathan Malin Opens Up about SpeakEasy's 'The Sound Inside'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 27, 2021

Nathan Malin
Nathan Malin  

Though stages in Boston, as everywhere, have mostly been dark for the past year and a half, Nathan Malin has kept busy. The young actor, who impressed audiences with his performance in SpeakEasy Stage Company's 2019 production of Joshua Harmon's "Admissions" while he was still a student at Boston University, has kept busy with readings that have taken place via Zoom — "mostly," he told EDGE, "with the theatre company Bedlam. And let's see," the youthful thespian, who is preparing for a move to New York, adds; "I directed a reading of 'Coriolanus.' And a reading of three of Chekhov's one acts, with all these extraordinarily talented actors, which was really a blast."

Add to those projects a workshop performance "of a play that a graduate student at BU is writing that I believe is actually getting full production this year" and a "two-hander about two men who are sort of lost from their place in the world and have very different reactions as to how to remedy that," and it's clear Malin has neither been resting on his laurels nor considering a switch to some other vocation.

"And then," the actor adds, " in the spring. I directed a production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Appropriate," which, you know, in the midst of COVID, we had to figure out ways to make that work. And our solution was to rehears the play on Zoom for about three weeks, and then travel to a house in the Berkshires." After a two-week quarantine and COVID testing, the cast "staged the play in the house in a week. And then at the end of the week we live streamed what we had staged to an audience." That experience, Malin added, "was really a blast to work on, especially in the midst of the pandemic when we were all so socially isolated — to live together for a week and do what we love. It was just such a fresh breath of fresh air."

Now, like another breath of fresh air — though by turns chilly and welcoming — comes the SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of Adam Rapp's two-hander "The Sound Inside," which centers on the relationship between Bella, a Yale professor who fears she may be near the end of her life, and Christopher, a student whose own life may be in danger of derailment by his erratic responses to the world around him. The play's mood of mystery, existential terror, defiance, and even, possibly, romance grow in tandem with its revelations about the characters. As we grow to know them, and as they get to know each other, tenderness and uncertainty grow in close parallel. Whether this is a love story, a thriller, or a comedy of the gallows kind (or all three) is an open question, but the play is more interested in asking us such questions than in offering answers.

EDGE had the pleasure of a chat — via Zoom, suitably enough — with Nathan Malin, who offered his thoughts about working with co-star Jennifer Rohn and director Bryn Boice, the dark and funny work of Adam Rapp, and what, exactly, makes his character tick.

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'
Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: Did the people at SpeakEasy recall you from your work on "Admissions" and approach you for the role of Christopher in "The Sound Inside?"

Nathan Malin: Yes, they approached me for the role — the first time I'd ever been offered a role without auditioning for it, which was very nice of them. There are some similarities between the characters of Charlie in "Admissions" and Christopher, in terms of their wit and their intelligence, but in other ways there's a whole lot of differences. And I'm discovering those differences as I plow on through the text.

EDGE: They probably also share a kind of bond of loneliness, which seems to be the central theme of "The Sound Inside" — loneliness, isolation, separation.

Nathan Malin: Yeah. I mean, I think Charlie in "Admissions" has a certain loneliness to him, just in that he feels so misunderstood, and I think Christopher [also] feels very misunderstood. He definitely has a very different reaction to what it means to be misunderstood, and to that sense of loneliness. I think that Christopher is only willing to satisfy his loneliness with the exact right person, whom he is lucky enough to meet in the course of the play. But he's not satisfied with anyone else who he meets... all the other young college freshmen at Yale. He doesn't consider them to see the world the way he does.

EDGE: The pandemic has put all of us into something of a lonely and isolated situation, so this feels like a well-chosen play for right now.

Nathan Malin: Something that [SpeakEasy Stage Company Artistic Director] Paul [Daigneault] talked about in in deciding to do this play is that there's a good amount of debate in his play about "What is fiction, and what is truth?" I think that that's a poignant question in our time. But I do think that these two characters are struggling with loneliness and finding each other. I mean, that feeling that I think we all experience when we're coming out of this pandemic. We see people that we haven't seen in years, or we finally are in social situations that we haven't been in a year, and it feels so foreign. I think there's [something similar] in the relationship between these two characters — it's just so shocking that, suddenly, "Oh right, this is what it feels like to be engaged with a person." I think that feeling is going to be definitely portrayed on stage.

EDGE: Your costar, Jennifer Rohn, is such an acclaimed actor, with so many credits and such a range of experience. Has she become something of a mentor for you on this production?

Nathan Malin: I definitely follow her lead. I think the Jenny is a world class actor, and I feel so lucky to be in rehearsal with her every day, much less getting to be on stage with her in the coming weeks. She always gives me something strong to work off of, which is the most you can ask for, I think, in a scene partner. And I always really feel like we're in it together; we're trying to find the secret to each of these scenes as a team, and not just on our own.

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'
Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE Given that this is a two-hander, do you feel like you are drilling deeper into the material than might otherwise have been possible?

Nathan Malin: Yeah, absolutely. I've never done a two hander in person before; I've done [one in a] Zoom workshop. Something that I'm realizing, which is hard to notice over Zoom, is how much the audience is going to be watching not just what either actor is doing, but rather what's happening between the two actors. And it's impossible for us to mine for that without really working together.

EDGE: You're working with director Bryn Boice, who has done such wonderful work in the past. What's that experience been like?

Nathan Malin: Bryn has been wonderful. She sees what we do, and she comes up with very often small and specific and necessary adjustments, just to light the track and make everything a little bit clearer, which has been really helpful. She trusts the both of us a great deal and we trust her a lot; in some ways we follow her lead, and in some way she follows ours in that she's always curious to hear what we think of the character and the character's journey, and happy to help us further clarify that, or to help us find the answers.

EDGE: The author of the play, Adam Rapp, is a prolific novelist as playwright. Had you been a fan of his prior to accepting this role, or is this kind of a discovery for you to do this?

Nathan Malin: It's mostly discovery. I had read "Red Light Winter" [for which Rapp won a Pulitzer Prize] a long time ago, but that was really my only exposure to him as a writer. I'm definitely a fan now. He has such an interesting style of playwriting, which is very different than a lot of his contemporary colleagues. He's not always attached to conventional structure in the way that a lot of playwrights are, and I think he lets his character sort of lead him, which makes for deeply rounded out characters — really three dimensional people that you don't necessarily get if you're sort of sticking to a [formula] of, "Here's where things have to go wrong, and here's the intermission, and here's where things get resolved, and that's the end."

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'
Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in 'The Sound Inside'  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

EDGE: Adam Rapp tends to write some rather dark material, but there's actually quite a lot of humor in this play. How hard is this production leaning on the humor?

Nathan Malin: It's funny you mentioned that; last night we had the largest audience we'd had just in terms of having some guests at the rehearsal. It was the first time there was a laugh track, as it were, to what we were doing, and there was quite a bit of laughter. I don't feel that I'm playing the part for laughs, or either of us are playing for the comedy, necessarily, but the people we're playing are witty, and that's where the humor comes from. They bounce off each other in such interesting ways. That feeds their relationship, and is part of what makes them perfect for each other. It's gonna be interesting; different audiences, I think, will react differently to it. There are certainly some incredibly heavy issues in the play, and it'll be interesting to see, once those are introduced, if people are really in the mood to laugh. But I do think the play is very funny.

EDGE: The way he's written, your character could be seen as being kind of dark, and certainly the novel he's writing within the play has some dark elements, which is kind of meta. Are you feeling that Christopher is truly someone who's wrestling with dark compulsions, or is he more a precocious person who's also very young, and it's not easy for him to figure himself out?

Nathan Melin: Some of both, I think. Christopher is wise beyond his years, and certainly really well read beyond his years. I imagine that he doesn't necessarily come off that way to a lot of his fellow students; I think they probably see him as sort of just a precocious jerk. But I do think he's got the smarts to back it up, and sometimes that happens to really intelligent people — they just aren't really able to make friends with the people around them, because their friends just can't keep up. I think that he is wrestling with serious existential problems and issues that are rare for people his age to really deal with. And yet, what it all comes down to, most likely — and I can't sort of make this judgment as the character but just as someone looking at the play from the outside — is those issues spring from his loneliness.

EDGE: Adam Rapp's brother Anthony Rapp, is an openly gay actor, and Adam Rapp has brought LGBTQ+ themes into his plays sometimes. Is the play suggesting that Christopher may be gay, or maybe he could be asexual — or even pansexual, because he's very bright and curious about everything? Do you have a feel for that?

Nathan Malin: I've gone through a lot of different answers to that question as I've explored who he is. Upon my first read of the play, I did think maybe he's asexual and dealing with that. I think perhaps that the fact that he doesn't like to be touched has, perhaps, something to do with a past trauma, which is never addressed. In terms of what he's attracted to, I think he's extraordinarily attracted to intelligence — he's attracted into people who can keep up with how fast his mind moves. In that way, he can't really find anyone who can match him.

EDGE: At the same time there is a growing tenderness and trust between two characters, which, in our age of #MeToo, and given this is a professor and a student, seems charged.

Nathan Malin: Rapp talks [in the script's introduction] about how the play has a growing sense of dread as it moves, and I think that there's a sense of dread you have as you watch the relationship between the two characters: "Is this going to turn into that? Is this going to turn into a teacher-students affair?" I won't spoil whether it does or not, but I think that's very much the question that's in the air. The entire time the play is happening. neither character necessarily judges that, or leaves it off the table.

EDGE: One thing you must have talked about in the room, or at least meditated on yourself, is: "What is 'the sound inside?' " When you ask that question, where does it take you?

Nathan Malin: Good question. It is something we've talked about. I think that the title of the play refers specifically to the sound that Bella experiences inside. Not so much Christopher, I think. Each of them has this tremendous sense of longing for something more, [and] they don't quite know what it is. I think Christopher longs for miracles and the supernatural, the metaphysical. I think that's what's constantly playing in his head: That this can't be it. This can't be all there is to this life. There has to be something else; there has to be something that you're missing. And he's sort of plagued by that, and it leads him to some dangerous choices.



"The Sound Inside" runs Sept. 24 — Oct. 16. CONTENT WARNING: The play contains discussions of self-harm. Tickets and more information at https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/09/the-sound-inside/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.