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A CurtainUp Review
Dusk Rings a Bell
By Elyse Sommer
No, this isn't a variation of Brian Friel's The Faith Healer in which the three actors on stage never interact. As he did in The Death of Frank and A Small Melodramatic Story, Stephen Belber has structured Dusk Rings A Bell, an Atlantic Theater's Stage II world premiere, to be narrator driven, but with the audience asked to switch from confidante to spectator as the narrators become players.
Both narrators do plenty of audience addressing, but they also talk to each other — and more. Belber is revisiting a theme he's tackled in various permutations: the effect a single event and the changing perceptions time gives to it. In Molly and Ray's case their brief romantic interlude happened at the Delaware beach where her parents rented a house twenty-five years ago and where Ray still lives. In the 90 minutes we spend with them we never quite know what to expect from their attempt to reclaim the wonder of that long ago event when everything was possible because "they were at their very best."
Belber has given these two lonely and emotionally needy people fluid and naturalistic dialogue to shape their confidences to us and to each other so that their characters emerge fully. The beach town of their unanticipated reunion is driving distance from Washington, D.C. where 39-year-old Molly has a job with CNN that she enjoys and is well paid for.
Ray, who is a caretaker for some of the summer homes and also has his own landscaping business, obviously has lived life in a slower lane. But what seems like a more laid back, uneventful existence has not been without excitement, albeit of a darker and more disturbing nature. It is Molly's reaction to learning about this darker aspect of Ray's life that turns what starts out as a light, romantic entertainment into an exploration of our need to change and reconcile the present with a past that's too elusive to be easily reclaimed.
While Ray's revelation about the ten years when he too was away from the beach town is the meat and potatoes of Dusk Rings a Bell, I've put the details in the yellow box after the production notes so that you can let them come at you more surprisingly. If you want to know what happened right now, just click this link:Ray's Secret.
The reason for Molly's visit to the house her family once rented is a bit too much of an authorial device: a letter written to herself and to be re-read when she's much older. Forced or not, it works to bring Ray on scene to rekindle the sparks of a romantic afternoon when she was fifteen and he was sixteen and when a kiss was still a big and memorable deal. It also works because we have Paul Sparks and Kate Walsh to play Ray and Molly. I've seen Sparks bring his unique brand of edgy charisma to a variety of roles. I haven't seen Walsh on stage or in the TV roles in Gray's Anatomy and Private Practice that she's best known for, but better late and all that. They generate wonderfully watchable chemistry with each other and the audience.
Will Molly and Ray be able to stoke fireworks from that long ago innocent romance? Will Ray's revelation about the ten year gap in his life at the beach town, end any possibility of more mature romantic fireworks? Will whatever happens make Molly more content and bring Ray closer to true self-understanding and redemption? That's a lot of questions and it takes Sam Gold's insightful, leisurely direction and the first-rate performances to put them all on the table so that we can be in touch with these people's mutual neediness and the sociological issues raised.
I saw my first Stephen Belber play, Death of Frank, in 1998 in a small theater at the back of a SoHo art gallery. It didn't quite live up to the promotional copy's claim of taking playwriting to the level where it needs to be, but I found its theme powerful and its language rose above wannabe lyricism so that it stayed with me a long time. Four years passed before his excellent Tape (which was also made into a movie) was presented, further uptown, also in a small theater. One Million Butterflies, a monologue at the old Primary Stages' tiny upstairs venue, found Belber at his most lyrical but least dramatically compelling. After that several Belber plays were presented by high profile Off-Broadway companies—McReele by the Roundabout and A Small Meolodramatic Story by the LABrynth Theater Company which also featured an interesting concept set by Dusk Rings a Bell designer Takeshi Kata. In 2004 Belber finally made it to Broadway with Match. Despite a tour de force performance by Frank Langella, it closed quickly.
Why this countdown of Belber plays that I've reviewed to sum up this one ? While none attained that level of perfection one always hopes for, all are unfailingly well written and feature compelling themes. As a result any play with his by-line has enough potential pluses to be worth seeing and usk Rings a Bell is no exception. Yes, the letter is too contrived a starter button pusher. And yes, the play is too talky. But that talk is full of lovely, naturalistic writing and Intriguing ideas that ring a bell in our hearts and minds.
Death of Frank
Once Million Butterflies
A Small Melodramatic Ctory