Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dusk Rings A Bell by Stephen Belber

By Joe Straw

When chaotic events surround me in Los Angeles, I take a moment, close my eyes, and go to a place of my youth.  I concentrate on a distant memory, lying under a shady maple tree, listening to a mockingbird repeat my every whistle.  There is the silent sound of a nearby stream where small frogs “bleep” before jumping into tranquil waters.  I stare up at mellifluous white clouds floating by and listen as my cat, Mouse, paddles her way to me. I use this sense memory to relax, to let go, and hope that when I open my eyes, life around me will be less tumultuous.

Dusk Rings a Bell by Stephen Belber and directed by Daniel Henning playing at The Blank Theatre in Hollywood is brilliant!  Belber’s words are a song of past remembrances, of missed opportunities, and of one soft kiss.  This is the story of two souls who come together after twenty-five years apart.   

Never have I been so moved, so touched, by the lyrical beauty of Belber’s words.  This play is so simple, so beautiful, and so picturesque.  But, as simple as it appears, it is highly complex and filled with so many levels. One may look back on this play time and time again to absorb its full meaning.  

There has been only a few times where emotions have overcome me.  And on this particular night, I was not the only one.  In the intimate house of The Blank Theatre, uncontrollable sobs were heard throughout.   Gentlemen were wiping their eyes and women were sobbing.  And this was only after the first few moments of the play!

This play touches emotions deep within you and sweeps you away into the unchartered territories of your soul.

Molly (Thea Gill), age 39, is an executive at CNN.  She is bright and articulate, and is open to opportunities by legal means or otherwise.  Recently divorced, she embarks upon a journey to visit a place and find a letter she wrote to herself 25 years earlier. 

She speaks of herself as a stuttering child and has the fortitude to quit, cold turkey.  It is that moment of motivation that gives her the ability to succeed later in life.  She speaks reverentially of a time spent with her parents in a Delaware bungalow and of a special kiss long ago that has remained with her.  

Ray (Josh Randall) is a guy who does guy things.  He does not appear bright.  He likes the outdoors and is the caretaker of a cabin in Bethany Beach, Delaware. He describes a hawk devouring a rat in a tree and thought it was cool.  He speaks of kissing a particular girl and thinking what life had been like if he had gotten into her pants.  It’s the grand glorious musings of a not too bright testosterone filled gardener.  Still his words have a kindness about them.  

Molly parks her car, finds the place, and breaks into the bungalow.  She finds the letter folded in a neat triangle in the attic, exactly where she had placed it 25 years ago. Her thoughts overcome her as slowly opens the triangle, shivering as she reads the letter to her adult self.   

And at the end of the letter she asks herself the question: “Are you happy?” 

She turns the letter over and discovers that someone has written the word,  “No”. 

A short time later Ray discovers her in a bungalow.  The criminal elements of the scene are laid out. He traps her into confessing her crime.  He wants money for the broken window.

“I’ll pay for it.  How much is it?” - Molly

“Eighty dollars.” - Ray

“I only have sixty.” - Molly

“I’ll take it.” – Ray

After paying him, she tries to leave, but he stands too close to let her pass. He stands close enough to inhale her and does not move. She tells him that her friends are waiting for her near the car.  He’s not buying the story and after a few tense sexually charged moments let’s her pass.

And as Molly escapes, she asks his name. “Ray”, he tells.  Eyes wide open, the curiosity seeker believes he is the boy she had a relationship with 25 years earlier.  (The kiss.)

There is a “thing” Ray does with his eyes brows.  The deeper the references, the closer the eyebrows get. In a state of anoesis, try as he might he’s not remembering any of it, the kiss, the moment, the excitement of spending time together.  His vacuous stare is not giving anything away. Nothing rings a bell.

Or does it?  He is so engrossed in the possibility this might be the “one” he shuts down not wanting to give one single thing away. But then, he succumbs to her charms, her insistencies, and her desire to get to the truth only known to both of them.  

But their story has a tragic middle as Ray tells Molly that he has spent time in prison, ten years, for the death of a gay student.  He tells her that he didn’t kill him, he was just around, when his friend repeatedly hit him.  They were drunk and went off and had pizza afterwards (for twenty-five minutes!) before anyone notified the police.

Molly is mortified, angry, afraid and disgusted, and leaves immediately.  She comes back days or weeks later to get more of the details of the tragic night.   They spend time together talking about the night of the murder. She has a physical relationship with him and then… (I can’t give this away.)

Their differences are night and day, possibly the reason for the title, “Dusk Rings A Bell.”

The appeal of this play is an inherent desire to take sides once information is released.  Moving back and forth between each character is a wonderful game.  When one character shows their perspective you immediately have sympathy and empathy for that person. When they are in dialogue and reveal information you can decide whose side you are on, if there is a side you wish to choose.

Age plays a different game.  The games become more complicated and nuanced the older we become. Intentions and objectives become as intricate as a fully realized chess game, by masters.

Receiving and sharing information about life’s ups and downs has its consequences. In any case, one comes away from this sensory extravaganza a better person.  More informed by the complexities of life and discussions of what is real and what is held back.

Josh Randall as Ray does a remarkable job of giving this man so many layers.  There is this empty-headed stare, which is mostly of out self-preservation. He is in actuality an intelligent man who doesn’t want to reveal too much information because he knows that doing so could destroy a beautiful relationship. Still, he does.  Randall gives us every day of his life as he treads the lonely road of due diligence to make amends for the wrong he has committed. And he walks a foggy path hoping to get to a clearing.  This is a remarkable role for this actor who lives and breathes this one mistake.  The mistake is written on his sleeves, stamped on his forehead, inside his inner being and it is a job well done.

Thea Gill as Molly is remarkable as well.  She has a gift off telling a story and making us see the small particulars.  She explores a lifecycle that has come full circle and she comes back expecting something magical to happen.  Expecting her knight in shinning armor.  One believes she works for CNN and has the high profile job that demands the truth in whatever form she can get. So after she gets this information why does she come back?  It is the reason that makes this remarkable actress so intriguing, so watchable, and questioning her every move. This is just a wonderful performance.  

Daniel Henning does a brilliant job putting all of this together.  It is a wonderful achievement and his finest work.  It is terrific storytelling at its best and mesmerizing in its subtle details.  

Stephen Belber, the writer, has written a terrific play. It’s all about the words and the words lead you to remarkable places. Belber’s words are so depressingly beautiful – it’s enough to make you stop punching the keys on your computer, throw down your pen, and walk away.  Or, on the flip side, an inspiration to keep scratching the hard thoughts on stone tablets.

The producers of this show are Matthew Graber, Daniel Henning and Noah Wyle.

Kurt Boetcher, the Set Designer has done a fabulous job creating a beachfront with which our characters can do their magic. The set is a muted color cream color that works as the place and tells us that not all human emotions are black and white.

Costume Design by Michael Mullen worked effectively. Stephanette Smith was the Lighting Designer on this wonderful show. 

The Sound Design by Warren Davis really helps in giving the audience that extra sensory experience of sound heard by the characters and the audience. 

The Job of Casting by Scott David and Erica Silverman was tremendous and shows they know the craft intimately. 

Kristen Lee Kelley plays Molly and Jarret Wright plays Ray in understudy roles.

Run to see this production! Take a long lost lover, hold hands in the dark, sit back and enjoy.


  1. Dear sir,

    If you are going to mention the entirety of the cast, producers and most of the production team you shouldn't forget the lighting designer's effort as well. Stephanette Smith should be mentioned at least, if not complimented for her excellent work on the show. But for completeness alone should she be included in your list.


    David Schwartz