In one of the darker productions to grace the Pasadena Playhouse’s stage in some years, Amy Brenneman joins South Pasadena native Anders Keith for prolific playwright Adam Rapp’s jarring “The Sound Inside,” a compelling stage effort that is as equally reaffirming as it is disturbing.
The play was originally commissioned by Lincoln Center and staged at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018. It went to Broadway in 2019 and received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.
Bella Baird (Brenneman) is, by general accounts, a successful novelist and writing teacher at Yale University. She is admittedly lonely and perhaps frustrated with her life, but she forges on, traipsing across campus alone, and keeping a weekly tennis date with a friend whose name she admits she is not quite sure of. It’s been seventeen years since her last novel, but who’s counting?
Enter the mysterious Christopher Dunn (Keith), a self-assured yet admitted misfit of a freshman writing student from Vermont, who waltzes into her office without an appointment (twice), and proceeds to equally annoy and captivate her. Together they step into an odd courting ritual as Dunn keeps his distance, and she perhaps walks too swiftly into a couple of dinner dates and a glass of wine at her home, while he completes his novel over the course of the semester.
Theater director and filmmaker Cameron Watson has fashioned this production of Rapp’s stark tale into a compelling narrative using a minimal set, some sliding screen panels, dramatic lighting, and no wardrobe changes, in a story that takes place over a cold New England fall and winter.
Brenneman is unassuming and almost coy in the face of her admitted loneliness. She narrates the story as the play opens, and the narrative is both acted out and narrated, as she breaks the fourth wall to unspool the story.
Keith is vaguely condescending and somewhat cryptic as the smug young writer, and far too self-assured to be the misfit he knows that he is. Though his story is dark, he never seems particularly frightening or threatening, just amiss.
As the tale unravels, both reveal their histories to each other. Brenneman’s comes with a family history of a vicious cancer, and Keith, if he is to be believed, is the son of a well-known and successful mystery novelist.
As their courting dance fizzles, but with no one else to ask, Brenneman draws Dunn deeper into her circle for a far more intimate experience. The compelling story is thoughtful though disturbing, and both Brenneman and Keith carry their difficult roles with equal parts grace and enigma.
“The Sound Inside” runs through October 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA. (626) 356-7529.