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Dusk Rings a Bell

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Paul Sparks and Kate Walsh.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

For some people, the question isn't whether there's life after death, but whether there's life after adolescence. For the two terminally lonely adults in Stephen Belber's bittersweet play Dusk Rings a Bell, which just opened at Atlantic Stage 2, a chance meeting 25 years after an innocent teenage assignation isn't for them so much a second chance as a reminder of the chances they've each already blown. Their lives have taken paths as divergent as possible yet they've ended up at the same place. This unintentionally proves—to each of them and to us - that there's no escaping who you were or who you are, especially if it's someone you never wanted to be.

Both Molly (Kate Walsh) and Ray (Paul Sparks) learn this the hard way, just at the point they finally believe they've gotten their lives in order. She's a "vice president for media relations" for CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau; he's a caretaker and landscaper in Bethany Beach, Delaware, where she spent many of her summers while growing up. And though each is intrigued—if not outright haunted—by the memory of spending one afternoon making out on a lifeguard stand as the sun set, the deeper bond they share is that, since that day, neither has been fully human.

That was, after all, Molly's only summer of true, spiritual freedom: Until that point, she had been a voracious stutterer, unable to communicate the simplest ideas about herself to even her closest friends; afterwards, she discovered sex, and pursued it to the detriment of everything else that once made her unique and special. And it was one of Ray's last summers of literal freedom, as just two years later he was convicted of not doing enough to stop a gay bashing he witnessed and spent the next 10 years of his life in jail.

Not exactly equivalent experiences, you say? Maybe not. But Belber is in top personal form examining one of his favorite topics (which addressed most famously in his career-making Tape, but also in Geometry of Fire and A Small, Melodramatic Story): the evaporation of the soul. Ray hasn't forgotten his crime—in fact, he's so absorbed it that he's positive he'll die in a similarly bloody way—but he's made peace with it and tried to reconstruct his life. Molly, however, is convinced she's his moral and psychological superior, and her incessant attempts to "understand" him only suggest that she's lost the ability to understand or empathize with anyone—which would explain why her romantic life is, and has always been, in tatters. (She divorced her husband over cereal, for instance.)

Passing little observable judgment on either character, Belber makes this threadbare scenario into one that's more than capable of filling 95 minutes of subdued stage time. Seeing how their relationship rekindles, progresses, and stalls—all because of one event Molly is too "good" to ignore—is a surprisingly rich experience. We've all known probers and resisters like these two, who are consumed with either knowing or hiding every detail about life's most intimate experiences, but Belber is one of the rare playwrights to squeeze real juice from the irresistible force–meets–immovable object conflict.

Some credit must be given to Gold, who is proving in the wake of last season's magnificent Circle Mirror Transformation, that he's a master at eliciting profound feelings from apparent nothingness. Through simple reconfigurations of just the two actors on Takeshi Kata's bland endless-boardwalk set, he's able to turn each of the very few times they touch into major events: connection for two people who have yet to master the skill. Lighting designer Ben Stanton also conveys a broad range of emotions and locales with a very restrained palette.

There's nothing remotely restrained about Walsh. Best known for her roles on television's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, she's a natural and supremely confident stage actress who could not be better matched with Molly. Walsh makes her into a deeply passionate woman encased in a resolutely, even coldly, serious façade that makes you implicitly understand how Molly can save and destroy lives in the same millisecond. (She finds arresting levels of meaning in Molly's self-deceptive opening line, "I'm not one of those people who has difficulty communicating," spoken just before she begins proving herself wrong over and over.) But you can't hate her crusade, because it seems to come from a well-meaning place. Walsh juggles all this expertly and effortlessly, making a riveting personality of someone who's potentially repellant.

Sparks is adept at playing working-class stiffs (and has in practically every Adam Rapp play, except the current one at the Vineyard Theatre, The Metal Children), and his studied, halting speech is just right for a man like Ray, who's doesn't know what he can ever safely say about anything. But Sparks seems to play that character in every play, with almost no variation, and his aw-shucks sort of stage presence doesn't do much—especially opposite Walsh—to convince you that the line between Ray the man and Ray the monster is as defined as we might like to believe. Ray can be played like an Asperger-suffering gas station attendant, but we need to see more of both the drive that once made him want to be a heart surgeon and the viciousness that ruined his chance to do it.

Admittedly, the play could give him a little more help. Alternating back and forth between lengthy narration dialogues and two-person scenes, Belber has difficulty establishing a dramatic rhythm or a consistently high level of action. Walsh is better at powering through some of the endless monologues than Sparks (whose droning delivery becomes wearying during his first speech), but the play only truly shines when Molly and Ray play most openly off of each other's expectations and prejudices.

They each may think they don't have them, or that they're under control, but such things are never true of anyone. Their fundamental misreading of themselves and life in general makes the bond they want to form elusive. But their attempts to do so are fine dramatic fodder that, when Belber exploits it most directly, ensures that Dusk Rings a Bell hits all the right notes.

Dusk Rings a Bell
Through June 26
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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