Sparse Anchors of Memory

By Brandon SwardSeptember 12, 2023

Sparse Anchors of Memory
THE SOUND INSIDE, at the Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, September 6–October 1, 2023.

In retrospect, I should have expected that I would see Daniel Franzese (Damian from Mean Girls) at the industry night opening of The Sound Inside at the Pasadena Playhouse. The now 45-year-old actor wears a red beanie, overalls, and a turquoise “statement necklace,” posing for photographers in front of a blue backdrop emblazoned with the show’s title and theater’s logo. I fight through a dense crowd of gay men turning “looks,” middle-aged theater professionals, and elderly philanthropists either on walkers or about to be. While washing my hands in the bathroom, a tall gray-haired gentleman asks me, “Are you ready to see a great play?” “I hope so,” I respond. After all, I am here as a member of the press, and like a good journalist, I never make up my mind beforehand.

In my seat I flip through the program, realizing I recognize the lead actress, Amy Brenneman, from her work on Judging Amy during the late 1990s and early ’00s. One among dozens of legal dramas at the time, Judging Amy (created by and starring Brenneman herself) was set apart by its focus on ostensibly the least interesting of all of the courtroom’s characters: the judge. But by depicting Amy Gray’s chaotic life as a family-court judge and recent divorcee who moves in with her widowed social-worker mother, with six-year-old daughter in tow.

At the risk of projecting, there seems to be a parallelism between Judging Amy and The Sound Inside. Like Gray, Bella Baird, the play’s protagonist, is a character that seems entirely uninteresting at first glance: a single, washed-up novelist and Yale professor of creative writing. Like Gray, Baird struggles to maintain the objectivity she imagines her position requires, even as the mess of it all unravels life’s rough edges. The play begins with Baird directly addressing the audience, introducing herself and her situation. The set is sparse, almost nonexistent, as if just providing the anchors of Baird’s memory itself.

Much of the plot revolves around Baird’s relationship with Christopher Dunn (portrayed by Pasadena native and recent Juilliard alumnus Anders Keith), an ambitious and talented if gauche and careening freshman in Baird’s fiction course. Dunn is writing a novel and begins frequenting Baird’s office hours. Her loneliness is almost palpable when she asks Dunn out to dinner, even more so when the odd couple ends up at Baird’s apartment and Dunn confesses that he’d tracked down and read Baird’s tepidly received novel. He tells Baird about his girl troubles. When he finally touches Baird’s cheek with his hand and the tension is about to boil over, Baird retires to her bedroom, leaving Dunn on her couch with a blanket and pillow. The next morning he’s gone.

What might have been just a single evening of blurred boundaries becomes much foggier when a revelation forces Baird to the uncomfortable truth that Dunn is perhaps the person she feels closest to in the world. Out of this simple—even cliché—premise, playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp pumps a surprising amount of emotion. Baird switches constantly between being in the scene with Dunn and then reflecting upon it from the outside. We get the sense of two great prose stylists with locked horns, trying to create, trying to understand, trying to make life as beautiful and painful and wide and fragile as it can be.


Featured photo of play materials provided by contributor.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Brandon Sward is an artist, writer, and organizer in Los Angeles. He used to edit the LARB Short Takes section, and is currently at work on a book about growing up queer and biracial in Colorado Springs, the “Evangelical Vatican.”


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