Pasadena Playhouse has opened their new season with a spellbinding new production of Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside”. With beautifully crafted prose and intricately woven storytelling, Rapp’s story of a Yale professor and an enigmatic student takes us on an emotionally layered journey with unexpected twists and turns.
It’s fall in New Haven, as Professor Bella Baird steps forward to introduce herself – a mid-50’s, never married, creative writing professor who wrote a mildly successful novel twenty years ago. She goes on to give several details of her likes and dislikes, her habits and shortcomings, successes and failures. She is self-deprecating and describes even the most intimate and shocking details with a professorial detachment.
One gets the sense that Baird’s life has been sort of plodding along like this for years until suddenly she is shaken from this slumber when Christopher Dunn appears at her office door. He’s a quirky, fiercely intelligent, first-year student in her class – a born in the wrong era misfit who abhors email, bougie coffee, and types on a vintage typewriter. After an odd and somewhat shocking first exchange, Bella is intrigued. In fact, they both seem inexplicably drawn to one another. In subsequent meetings they explore his novel in progress and touch on a wide range of topics, many of which are literary while others deeply personal. They are strangers really but somehow locked in for this twisty ride that keeps us guessing as to where all of this is going.
Rapp’s writing is utterly compelling and keeps you fully engaged – he beautifully juxtaposes humor with sobering reality. Bella seems intoxicated by what Christopher brings out in her. He forces her to look at the discrepancies between her actual life and the story she tells the world – the way she is surrounded by people and yet she is actually completely alone. It would seem that he too is alone in the world. Perhaps he recognizes her as a fellow traveler.
When reading Christopher’s novel, Bella calls his writing “beautifully restrained”, which I think can be said of both this play and the performances. The Cameron Watson direction keeps things taut and intense, as the characters go in and out of scenes to give us their inner dialogue from a future perspective. As in their lives, both Christopher and Bella remain mysterious, keeping the audience in breathless anticipation of what they will do next. Indeed, puzzling it out will have you on the edge of your seat, as will the language which demands your attention for 90 minutes as you hurtle towards a startling conclusion.
Amy Brenneman as Bella has never been better, exquisitely navigating a prickly character who, for all her wordy self-reflections, is cut off from her feelings and intuition. Brenneman’s Bella is witty, sharp as a tack, and painfully detached from the world and herself. It’s a complex, nuanced performance that ricochets playfully with the fascinating, controlled turn of Anders Keith as Christopher. He is fervently bright yet socially obtuse, which cranks up the tense undercurrent between them.
Bella repeats during a writing exercise to “listen to the sound inside” over and over and even she isn’t sure what she means. Just as Christopher’s novel ends with an ellipsis, the end of this stunning play leaves us with much to ponder and wonder – so many possibilities.
The Sound Inside runs through October 1, 2023 at Pasadena Playhouse. Tickets starting at $35 are available at pasadenaplayhouse.org by phone at 626-356-7529, and at the box office at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.