Thursday, November 13, 2014

Echoes of Laramie at Merrimack

Todd Lawson and D'Arcy Dersham in Dusk Rings a Bell.  Photos: Meghan Moore.

Not all the critics have been kind to Dusk Rings a Bell, the new script by Stephen Belber - who is perhaps best known as a contributor to the Laramie Project - which is running at Merrimack Rep through this weekend only.  And for my part, I'd never argue the play is perfect.  It opens with an exercise in articulate narcissism that's excessive even for Belber (who has never shaken off the Laramie habit of direct audience address); and there's a curious reticence to the writing that mutes, or sometimes even muddles, the author's intents and themes.

And yet . . . the play somehow haunts. This is partly because, whatever flaws the script may have, its production at Merrimack probably could not be bettered. Driven by two remarkable performances from D'Arcy Dersham and Todd Lawson, under the subtle direction of Michael Bloom,  it's nothing less than superb, and steadily engrossing in spite of its author's occasional tics.  But then the two-hander that sneaks up on you thanks to deeply-imagined star turns is by now a Merrimack tradition. (Which is why I schlep up to Lowell to see their shows!)

It also helps that you can feel a closer personal connection than usual moving beneath this material for Belber, whose local productions have included the unsatisfying Carol Mulroney and The Power of Duff, two rather artificial attempts to limn abstract cases of spiritual angst. This time around, though, Belber has ventured closer to home with a tale of a hyper-articulate yuppie who re-encounters the handsome boy with whom she shared a twilit kiss some twenty years before, on the beach where she summered as a girl. Over those two decades, however, "Molly" ascended (to a perch high in PR), while "Ray" descended - in fact he spent 10 years doing hard time for getting mixed up in a horrific hate crime: he stood by one night as his buddy beat a gay vacationer to death.

Todd Lawson tries to explain the inexplicable.
This, of course, parallels the sad story of Russell Henderson, one of the killers of Matthew Shepard, and hence a central character in The Laramie Project - whom Belber also interviewed personally for its follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. In those interviews, Henderson came off as a malleable soul who lacked both the sadistic edge of his partner in crime, Aaron McKinney (who dealt the fatal blows) and - tragically - the force of will to stand up to him. Recently even more questions have swirled around the status of Shepard's grisly murder as the iconic "hate crime." Was crystal meth a factor in the slayings? Was Matthew Shepard even perhaps sexually involved with one of his killers? These and other caveats have been added by various reporters to a story that has become more and more unstable.

Hence, perhaps, the more-immediate edge moving beneath Belber's work here. For Molly amounts to his factotum in the piece - she is clearly drawn to "interview" Ray in much the same way the author once interviewed Russell: to try to divine how someone so likable and seemingly good-natured could stand by as a horror unfolded.  The question is here all the more pointed as we eventually discover, in an understated coda, that Molly and Ray shared more than just a flirtatious kiss all those years ago: Ray also offered Molly a random act of kindness, a little nudge of re-assurance that may have proved pivotal to her development. So somehow, deep inside, she knows she owes him: but how much?  And can she really "abide," as she puts it, Ray's great crime of omission - even if his true nature is a gentle and generous one?

Over the course of the play's 90 talky minutes, these questions do come to grip us - but I must admit that Belber never presses Molly toward any real moment of truth; he has a strange reticence about the "engineered" dramatic climax that has often compromised his work, and it compromises Dusk Rings a Bell as well.  

Still, up at Merrimack, D'Arcy Dersham, in an exquisitely detailed and pitch-perfect performance, finds veins of feeling in Molly that eventually redeem the character from our first impression of her as morally glib and relentlessly self-centered. But then she has Todd Lawson to work with, who plays a bemused slow hand against all her chatter that slowly hints at something like a lost, but basically trusting, soul. Those who care about serious acting will not want to miss either performance - which I would rate as easily among the best of the year.

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