Paul Sparks and Kate Walsh
in Dusk Rings a Bell
(© Ari Mintz)
Paul Sparks and Kate Walsh
in Dusk Rings a Bell
(© Ari Mintz)
In Stephen Belber's Dusk Rings a Bell, now being given its world premiere at the Atlantic Stage 2, the playwright wrestles with a number of intriguing ideas relating to rehabilitation, redemption, and moral culpability. Unfortunately, the show at times strains credulity and could use some judicious trimming from its 90-minute running time.

The work centers around 39-year-old Molly (Kate Walsh), a PR executive at CNN who seems to be undergoing a mid-life crisis that is possibly related to her mother's recent death, her less recent divorce from her husband, or just simply the accumulation of life's detritus. Belber doesn't make it particularly clear what has prompted Molly's bout of soul searching, despite a rather lengthy monologue that begins the play, and which Walsh only fitfully inhabits.

In an effort to reclaim something from her younger days, Molly makes a return visit to the beach house where she used to vacation as a teenager. While there, she runs into Ray (Paul Sparks), with whom she once shared a beautiful day -- and a large number of kisses. But their meet-cute reunion takes an unexpected turn once Ray reveals he spent 10 years in prison for his part in a hate crime that he says he "didn't do enough to stop."

Given Molly's job, one might think that following the initial encounter that we witness, she would have the resources to look into the case prior to meeting up with Ray once again. But there's no mention that she's done anything of the kind -- which is one of the plot points that doesn't seem to hold up well under close examination -- and she initiates another meeting with him.

Belber was an associate writer (and performer) for the landmark drama, The Laramie Project, about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, so perhaps it's not surprising that Dusk Rings a Bell invokes similar themes. However, the focus here seems more on how Ray has dealt with his guilt in the intervening years, and whether or not he can ever hope to expect anyone to see beyond his crime and love him for who he is now. At one point in the play, Molly tells the audience that she can feel sympathy, but not empathy for him, and the play seems to ask the audience to be able to experience both.

Walsh -- best known for her TV work as Dr. Addison Montgomery on ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice -- has a good stage presence, buy she has a tendency to gesture far more often than necessary. We also don't get to see enough of what's going on with Molly underneath her words, and a little more vulnerability within her performance could do wonders. The actress does, however, have very good chemistry with Sparks, making Molly's strange fascination with Ray at least understandable.

For his part, Sparks is utter perfection. He has a low-key delivery and a calm exterior that belies a more passionate side to Ray that has been seemingly consciously suppressed. The slight inflections that Sparks puts on certain words make multiple meanings manifest, as well as bringing out the humor in Belber's script.

The play is at its best in the dialogue scenes between Molly and Ray. Sadly, there is far too much direct address to the audience, in which the characters tell us more than they show us. Also, the closing scene seems completely unnecessary, in large part, because it repeats information that has already been disclosed rather than add a new dimension to the work.