Dusk Rings a Bell
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
May 28, 2010
In life, second chances and re-dos are rare. Stephen Belber's new play Dusk Rings a Bell at Atlantic Stage 2 presents its haunted protagonists with such an opportunity and then explores the aftershocks. The result: a meandering, monologue-heavy, yet occasionally thoughtful piece that will become a big hit in acting classes.
Kate Walsh is Molly, a media relations VP for CNN's Washington, D.C. bureau. A reformed stutterer, Molly is a 39-year-old professional motor mouth, prone to nonchalantly revealing too much private information about her personal life. 25 years ago, she willed her stutter away after writing a note to her adult self and leaving it in the rafters of her summer home in Bethany Beach, Delaware. Then she met Ray (Paul Sparks), with whom she shared one night of happiness and kissing in a lifeguard chair while watching the sun set.
Over the years, Molly and Ray have more than romanticized this one-off encounter and it has come to define "missed opportunity" in both their lives. She turned into a serial "screwer," got married and divorced, never had children. He went to prison for ten years after being involved with the (perhaps intentional) murder of a gay man. He too got married and divorced, has a son whom he doesn't see very much, and has started a landscaping firm.
As fate would have it, they meet in the present as Molly attempts to reclaim the note from the bathroom, breaking into the property of which Ray is now the caretaker. The opportunity for a second chance knocks and they both answer.
Belber's script is intelligent and mature, though distinctly over-written, and has a great many qualities of a playwright who thinks he's being ironic: Molly, who once couldn't talk, is now an outgoing, incessant chatterer who claims that she's a great communicator, though hiding behind all the same insecurities she had as a child. Ray doesn't talk very much at all, though he's got the clarity Molly lacks.
Walsh, who skyrocketed to fame on ABC's Grey's Anatomy and its spin-off Private Practice, does the impossible, making a distinctly unlikable character not only likable, but compassionate. Sparks, an off-Broadway veteran, uses an unflinching monotone to his advantage, creating a character that is both wracked with guilt about the past but hopeful about the future. Director Sam Gold's credible, invisible staging brings out the best in both actors.
The physical production could stand to be a bit more claustrophobic, and Takeshi Kata's abstract beachfront boardwalk set reads more like an abstract ski lodge than anything remotely beachy.
Though Dusk Rings a Bell is bogged down in plot contrivances, it is a gift for actors and acting students, providing two very juicy roles, with very juicy monologues, subtext, back story and emotional baggage. It could be a staple of college acting classes for years to come.