‘Dusk Rings a Bell’ – Love and Mystery on the Boardwalk (3.5 Stars)

‘Dusk Rings a Bell’ – Written by Stephen Belber; Directed by Michael Bloom; Presented by The Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA. Performances through November 16th.

At first I thought of playwright Stephen Belber’s play as an entertaining little work about two people who meet again after many years apart. But the more I thought about it, the bigger the story felt. Maybe not epic, but a tale of romanticized love and hope that spans two very divergent lives and a good bit of time, including the period from childhood into adult life. It’s a play that features only two performers, with more lives brought in and out of frame. Some are less important while some have an everlasting, life-changing effect. The performers themselves represent four people – themselves as teenagers, and then as adults in the present. By the end they will actually play both roles. The choices they’ve made in their lives have of course changed them both, one dramatically. Yet this is also a story of two people emotionally stuck in time. Only one will move forward by the story’s end.

“Molly”, starts the play with the kind of monologue that makes me envious of actress D’Arcy Dersham. Her ability to memorize volumes of dialogue, then pour it back out rapid-fire, making it sound as if it’s her own thoughts just tumbling, newly-formed from her brain, is astonishing. As I listened to her opening monologue (directed to the audience) I couldn’t recall if the playwright was a man or a woman. I was wondering because the main character Molly felt real, reminding me of women I’ve known.  Later I confirmed that the playwright was Stephen Belber, and not a woman. But he gave credible voice to a woman’s thoughts and spirit. He also downplayed the male character’s personality, which would be explained later.

D’Arcy Dersham carries this play with her energy and enthusiasm. Taking time for plenty of sidebars with the audience, and she embraces the role’s Type “A” personality and blasts an almost stream of consciousness melange, covering among other things her childhood, college life, relationships, sex life and her PR job at CNN. She embraces the role so fully that in the end you may not care for her character all that much.

Todd Lawson is “Ray”, a quiet, low-key kind of guy you might well expect to see as a maintenance man in a seaside rental community. He keeps his head down and seems somewhat devoid of personality. It’s easy to dismiss him as one of society’s duller denizens, trudging quietly between the buildings of another person’s properties. He catches Molly breaking and entering one of the cottages he is responsible for and proceeds to snare her in a lie about it. Ray’s true character leaks out in bits and pieces throughout. It is one of my favorite theatre devices – the gradual reveal of the true character we’ve already made up our minds about. Mr. Lawson plays the role credibly and we get to see the pain and regret he feels in his life simmering beneath the surface.

The scenery is flat and monochromatic with the entire stage built of weathered wood, like the type used on a seaside boardwalk, and it’s where a few key moments occur. A few boxes made of the same material get repurposed as chairs, tables, a toilet and a bed. In a world where we are visually spoiled with beauty shots all around us, I couldn’t help but think how lovely it would be to see some seaside scenery to break up the monotony of the minimalist set.
The play lasts 90 minutes with no intermission and it starts with Molly’s aforementioned monologue that gives us a somewhat complete picture of Molly – minus the parts her memory has protectively left out. More will be revealed in later scenes, but the early scenarios are fun and a bit mysterious. By the play’s end Ray’s tortured history is revealed and Molly makes her choices, but some of the actions that play out don’t quite fit the characters or the moment. My friend and I found ourselves trying to rationalize some of the decisions and motives. It felt a bit like that jigsaw puzzle you find at the summer cottage. You assemble it to pass the time on a rainy vacation day, but in the end some of the pieces are missing. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/.