Playwright Stephen Belber starts off his latest with a classic romantic setup—then throws the audience an unexpectedly serious curve—in Dusk Rings A Bell, his not quite perfect but nonetheless highly affecting two-hander, now playing at Hollywood’s Blank Theatre in an exquisitely acted and directed West Coast Premiere.

Thirty-nine-year-old CNN exec Molly (Thea Gill) still dreams of the summer twenty-five years ago when she shared an unforgettable first kiss with a boy who has remained at the back of her thoughts over the ensuing years. It was that summer too that fourteen-year-old Molly wrote a letter to her thirty-nine-year-old self, a letter she has now driven back to Bethany Beach to retrieve from its attic hiding place in the house where she and her family spent that unforgettable holiday.

No longer in possession of the key to unlock the house (and by extension her past memories), the usually play-it-safe Molly does a little breaking and entering, only to be discovered post retrieval by the dwelling’s caretaker-landscaper, who happens to be none other than _____.

Only someone who’s spent his or her life in a romcom void could fail to fill in the above blank, and in hands other than Belber’s, Dusk Rings A Bell might end up yet another Lovers Reunited dramedy (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Steven Dietz’s Shooting Star proved recently at the Colony).

It takes Ray (Josh Randall) more than a few minutes to remember Molly and that kiss (or at least to admit to remembering them), after which it seems entirely likely that Cupid’s arrow will strike a second time. Then Ray lets drop a bombshell. He spent the decade from ages eighteen to twenty-eight behind bars, incarcerated for a having witnessed—but done nothing to prevent—a horrendous crime perpetrated by a friend.


The unofficial Code Of Reviewers’ Ethics requires me to stay mum on the nature of the crime in question. Suffice it to say that its revelation throws a wrench into Molly and Josh’s romantic reunion and turns Dusk Rings A Bell into an unexpected drama revolving around themes of redemption and forgiveness, and one which will surely have audience members asking themselves, “What would I have done had I been Josh?” and “What would I do now if I were Molly?”

Two factors prevent Dusk Rings A Bell from being as effective a play as it might be. There are times that it comes dangerously close to being an “issues play,” though that pesky Reviewers’ Code prevents me from being more specific about the issue in question. There’s also the matter of Molly’s particularly strong reaction to Ray’s crime, a natural one to be sure for anyone with an ounce of humanity in them, but one which might be better explained if Belber gave Molly a personal connection to the abovementioned issue.

What cannot be faulted at the Blank are Daniel Henning’s impeccable direction and the powerful performances by the production’s two stars.

No one plays tightly wound better than Gill, whose luminous presence ought to bring out Queer As Folk fans in droves, and Molly (like QAF’s Lindsay) functions best in a well-ordered life. Gill’s Grace Kelly beauty and elegance contrast terrifically with Randall’s more roughly hewn Marlboro Man handsomeness, and make for some electric opposites-attract sparks. (Meeting the bubbly Gill after the performance prompts me to urge a screwball comedy heroine as her next role.) Randall (of TV’s Ed and Scrubs, and previously raved about here for his performance in 2008’s My Thing Of Love) does electric, deeply felt work opposite Gill, as a man haunted by a past he’s done his best to move beyond, but one which refuses, even after all these years, to let go.

Kurt Boetcher’s beautifully conceived set manages to be abstract yet at the same time Delaware beach-specific, and Henning makes full, ingenious use of it. Stephanette Smith lights Boetcher’s vision to watercolored perfection, Warren Davis’s excellent waves-and-seagulls sound design further specifying the play’s beach resort locales. Michael Mullen’s costumes are effectively character-specific.

Dusk Rings A Bell is produced by Matthew Gaber, Henning, and Noah Wyle. Leonor Araujo, Jonas Dickson, Rachel Landis, and Stephen Moffatt are associate producers. Caitlin Eckstein is stage manager.

Once again Daniel Henning and the Blank have come up with a powerful piece of hot-button theater, one which offers L.A. audiences the chance to see TV/film favorites returning to their stage roots, and in the case of Dusk Rings A Bell, one which is sure to generate much post-performance discussion. Be prepared to have much to talk about on the drive home.

The Blank 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 13, 2011
Photos: Michael Geniac (top), Rick Baumgartner (middle and bottom)

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