MRT’s ‘Dusk Rings a Bell’ too much of a slow go

Todd Lawson and D’Arcy Dersham in Merrimack Repertory Theatre's "Dusk Rings a Bell." Photo:  Meghan moore

Todd Lawson and D’Arcy Dersham in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s “Dusk Rings a Bell.” Photo: Meghan Moore

LOWELL — In the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Stephen Belber‘s “Dusk Rings the Bell,” a moment in time between a young man and a young woman is unearthed and becomes a 25th reunion of sorts.

But can you go home again and recapture a magic moment? And what if the circumstances that brought two people together have drastically changed?
That’s the situation Belber addresses in his 90-minute piece about a 39-year-old PR executive named Molly (D’Arcy Dersham) and a 40-year handyman/caretaker named Ray (Todd Lawson).
It takes place at a beach cottage and other places around Bethany Beach, Del., and nearby Rehoboth Beach, where a 14-year-old Molly and a 15-year-old Ray shared a magical kiss at sunset after spending a few hours of an August day together. 
As the piece opens Molly has journeyed on a February Saturday to a beach house where she was staying that summer to retrieve a letter she wrote to herself  25 years before. When she breaks a window to get in, that attracts the attention of Ray, who is watching over the property for its owner.
Molly is vibrant, funny, sharp, but isn’t as confident or successful when it comes to life outside CNN, where she works. “Where do I go from here?” is her theme.
Ray is the sort of aw, shucks charm, goofy caretaker/handyman that Tom Poston perfected as George Utley on the old “Bob Newhart Show.”
At the beginning , he comes off as a bit dim-witted, perhaps a bit of a cover meant to keep people away. There’s nobody home. Don’t come knocking on this door.
Molly and Ray, meanwhile, will spend almost much of the time talking to the audience in monologues of various lengths — Molly has a very long one early on — as they do to each other. It an easier way of getting us into the characters’ stories and backgrounds than having to shoehorn it into expository dialogue, but it detracts from the story itself.
When Molly and Ray finally realize who the other person is, the game is on.
Ray is still suffering from the after-effects of a long-ago incident when he didn’t step in and prevent a friend from beating a gay man to death. As a result, he has served 10 years in prison, and presumes — wrongly, as it turns out — that he is toxic to anyone of Molly’s stature, even if they did share a far-distant past.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the actors and director Michael Bloom, “Dusk Rings a Bell” is so touchy-feely, talky and slow at times it threatens to come to a dead stop.
Belber has had two of his works presented locally in the last decade by the prestigious Huntington Theatre Company — “Carol Mulroney” in 2005 and last season’s “The Power of Duff” — and I enjoyed both, so there’s no axe to grind against the author, a skilled observer of the human condition who also served as a writer and actor for “The Laramie Project.”
But he doesn’t serve Dersham and Lawson all that well this time. Their characters in this aren’t as finely-drawn as they have been in some of his other pieces.
And I have no problem with a talky two-character piece, if, say, it’s as good as last season’s MRT production of “Talley’s Folly.”
Alas, despite the charms and skills of the principals, “Dusk Rings a Bell” feels overwritten and I never really felt engaged. 
After a brief carnal encounter between Molly and Ray — and the realization that you can go home again, at least for a one-night stand — there will be drama involving the long-lost letter.
Belber will also take us back to back to the scene of the kiss, but at the end you may  be asking what the late Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker used to ask: “What’s the pernt?”
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Stephen Belber’s “Dusk Rings a Bell.” Directed by Michael Bloom. Other credits: Wilson Chin (Scenic Designer), Deborah Newhall (Costume Designer), Jeff Adelburg (Lighting Designer) and Carter Miller (Sound Designer.) Through Nov. 16 at the Nancy L. Donhaue Theatre, 50 E,. Merrimack St., Lowell. http://www.mrt.org.

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