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Dusk Rings a Bell

Two lonely souls find their way back to the Delaware beach where they shared a kiss as teenagers.

With:
Ray - Paul Sparks Molly - Kate Walsh

Craig Lucas isn’t the only playwright who can appreciate the significance of a kiss. In Stephen Belber’s sensitively penned, if dramatically unsatisfying two-hander, “Dusk Rings a Bell,” two lonely souls find their way back to the Delaware beach where they shared a kiss as teenagers and discover that their lips still tingle at the memory of that kiss. Kate Walsh and Paul Sparks generate real electricity as this well-spoken, if oddly matched pair. But while both characters are appealing — even the one who spent 10 years in prison for murder — this wispy piece feels like an acting exercise.

Takeshi Kata’s minimalist set (a swoop of wood suggestive of breaking waves) and Ben Stanton’s seaworthy soundscape (crash! boom!) establish a reflective mood for this chance encounter on the beach.

Molly (Walsh), a media relations honcho in CNN’s D.C. news bureau, has come back to this retro town to reclaim a talismanic letter that she wrote to herself 25 years ago and hid in her family’s summer rental house. Feeble motivation, to be sure; but Walsh (“Private Practice” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) has the gift of gab and the talent to disarm. Her mile-a-minute delivery as the compulsively verbal Molly is at once an exercise in breath control and a compassionate look at a needy neurotic in search of the meaning of life.

Ray (Sparks) is the townie who never left town — except for the ten years that he spent in prison for his complicity in the gay-bashing death of a college student. “Ray obviously has issues,” notes Molly, who is both repelled and turned on by the “untapped reserves of violence” she senses behind his adorable grin.

Belber doesn’t begin to tap these reserves for dramatic purposes, but he does make use of Ray’s bottomless guilt and shame to create a complex character looking for redemption, but not expecting to find it. Certainly not from Molly, who prides herself on being a “communicator” but hides behind a wall of words.

Sparks has shown his keen affinity for men with the capacity to screw up their lives, in plays like “Lady” and “American Sligo.” Given the chance here to fully explore one of these sad cases, he turns in a beautifully nuanced perf. Unlike Molly, Ray has to struggle for words, and Sparks makes his mental exertion as funny and heartbreaking as it needs to be to win some respect for the guy.

Sam Gold (“Circle Mirror Transformation”) is pretty much an actors’ director, so none of this heroic thespic effort actually shows in performance. But while he artfully paces out the talky exchanges in this offbeat romance, he can’t sprinkle them with the fairy dust to transform Belber’s character study into a full-bodied play.

Dusk Rings a Bell

Atlantic Stage 2; 95 seats; $50 top

Production: An Atlantic Theater presentation of a play in one act by Stephen Belber. Directed by Sam Gold.

Creative: Set, Takeshi Kata; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; projections, Peter Nigrini; production stage manager, Erin Maureen Koster. Reviewed May 25, 2010. Opened May 27. Running time: ONE HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: Ray - Paul Sparks Molly - Kate Walsh

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