"Dusk Rings a Bell" at Mosaic Theatre: Where the Past Is far From Dead
Of the many wonderful phrases turned in Stephen Belber's beautifully written Dusk Rings a Bell, one stands above the pack: the "artifice of contrition." It refers to false acts of remorse or nonapology apologies — the palpable feeling you get when you hear public figures broadcast mea culpas for sins they probably aren't truly sorry about committing.
The character who introduces the phrase is Molly, who would know about such things. She works in media relations at CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau, where false acts of everything — contrition, gratitude, modesty — flood her in-box daily from obsequious pols. You'd think she could recognize ersatz repentance when she sees it, until an encounter with a man with whom she shared an adolescent kiss 25 years prior tests her moral compass in its ability to perceive remorse and forgive and forget.
Played by Chicago actress Jenny McKnight in Mosaic's current production, Molly explains to the audience in a lengthy opening soliloquy that the 39-year-old divorcée had an unhappy past and is suffering an unhappy present. She had a debilitating stutter as a girl and a voracious sexual recklessness as a young woman. The only time she felt she was "at her best" was a short stint between these damaging proclivities — during which time she had an unforgettable liplock with Ray, a self-conscious teenager two years her senior.
Now, she is returning to her beachfront childhood home to retrieve a life-changing letter she wrote to herself at age 14. In the process, she runs into Ray (Gregg Weiner), coincidentally the house's caretaker, and she recognizes him. One of the play's recurring themes is the way certain images from the past burn themselves into our retinas, visiting us with irrepressible regularity. But Ray initially plays dumb about his remembrance of their encounter, admitting only later that their kiss was the most "innovative" of his young life.
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The two meet at a Denny's and discuss the present and the past, and things begin to grow uncomfortable when Ray reveals that he spent ten years in prison for his passive complicity in the murder of a gay student two years after their innovative kiss. This information flummoxes Molly, and in their next meeting, she can't help but grill Ray on the moral awareness of his teenage grievance in a way that is both interrogative and condescending. A child of hippie parents who grew up with her P.C. antennae on 'round-the-clock alertness, she simply cannot handle the idea of a homophobic hate crime perpetrated by someone she knew — someone she shared her first intimate moment with, no less. It becomes a constant shadow hovering over their game attempt at a renewed relationship.
The drama plays out on a rustic set that is one of Mosaic's most impressive in some time, with the exterior of the house rotating into Molly's old bedroom and, later, an Italian restaurant with fluid precision. McKnight is excellent in the more demanding of the two roles, but Weiner, while visually believable as a prickly ex-con, can't quite keep up with her. He is one of the best actors in the South Florida community — he just won a Best Actor Carbonell — but this time, a Herculean effort is required of him. He was thrown into the role with just a couple of weeks to prepare after originally cast actor Clint Hooper fell ill, and it shows.
By now, followers of Belber's work will be able to recognize some of the playwright's recurrent preoccupations. Like the epochal Laramie Project, to which Belber contributed, much of the conflict of 2010's Dusk Rings a Bell centers on the murder of a young gay man. And like Belber's 2001 play-turned-movie Tape, Dusk Rings a Bell is about the elusiveness of suppression: the way regrettable memories of the past continue to impact the present, no matter how sufficiently they've been buried. In this case, both characters are so full of surprises, self-realizations, and profound insights that the work feels deeper than Tape. It helps that both characters are more mature than the clashing, reunited buddies in Tape.
Dusk Rings a Bell is an expert morality drama in which neither character is particularly right or wrong, if such designations can even apply to them at this stage. Life's a mess, and we make mistakes all the time, even if, for some of us, forgiveness is not an option. "One lives and learns," Ray says. Ironically, in a memory play with so many memorable exchanges, this shopworn aphorism may be the most profound.
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