Theater Review: “The Ding Dongs” — Alarmingly Out of This World

By David Greenham

Perhaps what’s most fascinating here is proof that Brenda Withers’s play has an evergreen quality to it. The Ding Dongs may prove to be prophetic.

The Ding Dongs by Brenda Withers. Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. Costume design by Camilla Dely. Lighting design by M. Berry. Sound design by Julian Crocamo. Staged by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, through August 27.

Karl Gregory, Nail Nacer, and Erica Steinhagen in Gloucester Stage Company’s production of The Ding Dongs. Photo: Shawn G. Henry

“There’s the signpost up ahead…”

Remember the early ’60s TV show that started with host Rod Serling reminding us that we’ve entered a different dimension?

Well, a different dimension also awaits in Gloucester Stage’s production of Brenda Withers’s thought-provoking comic drama The Dong Dongs.

Originally titled The Ding Dongs or What Is the Penalty in Portugal, the script made its first appearance in the Bay State in 2011 at Wellfleet Actors’ Theater. At the time, the resonances of this absurdist comic drama were tied to the events of a decade earlier, especially the shock of 9/11 — a beautiful day turned tragically dark.

Staged now, The Ding Dongs (without the subtitle) rings as a plausible futuristic encounter, alluding to the catastrophic costs of the climate crisis, or perhaps some other form of reparations.

The playwright refers to the Twilight Zone-like story as her “favorite fever dream.”

On a normal-seeming Tuesday, the doorbell rings at Redelmo’s (Nael Nacer) apparently suburban home. Strangers are at the door — a married couple — Joe (Karl Gregory) and Natalie (Erica Steinhagen). Their awkwardness and familiarity immediately put Redelmo (and us) on edge. Joe grew up in this house, which Redelmo now owns and lives in, with his late brother’s school-aged children.

But as the story continues, Joe and Natalie’s rambling and disconnected banter begins to spin a weird web. The visitors discuss topics that range from the futility of running track and a memory of Joe’s brother chipping a tooth in a fall off the front stoop to the question of whether change is inevitable. There is a bizarre thread about the popularity of bottles. Like spinning pinballs, subjects bounce off of one to another. All the while, Redelmo does his best to deflect and remain polite as he desperately looks for a a way to shut the door and end his encounter with these peculiar “ding dongs.”

The gab contains plenty of funny moments, and there are even a few interesting philosophical rabbit holes along the way. Still, the encounter between Redelmo and the off-kilter couple of Joe and Natalie becomes — moment by moment — more menacing and dangerous. Like the best episodes of the Twilight Zone, the play slowly pulls us into its disorientating trap.

The uncomfortable conversation momentarily pauses when the couple pressures its way into the house so Natalie can supposedly use the bathroom. Then the chop-logic small talk starts up again. “Maybe your friends know us,” Joe says with a Stepford Wives sort of optimism. “No,” Redelmo responds with a smile, “if my friends knew you, I would have heard about it by now.” It’s the closest Redelmo comes to outright admitting that the visitors in his house might be insane.

This production is a fresh remounting of the show that Gloucester Stage artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw directed at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theater at the beginning of the year with the same cast as well as most of the design team.

No set designer is credited, but the Gloucester Stage space has been transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with door frames at each corner. This skeletal setup — a doormat serves as the location of the first scene outside the house and an area rug and chandelier indicate a room inside the house — is very effective. It puts the emphasis on Withers’s aptly fast-moving dialogue and the audience’s imagination.

The lighting and sound design supply the perfect eerie surround for a situation that becomes increasingly bizarre and threatening. Camilla Dely’s clever costumes also provide some “tells” into the characters of Natalie and Joe. When it is summer in New England it’s easy for locals to spot the tourists.

Props arrive in the form of cardboard boxes that raise the stakes. Through skillfully executed manipulation, they become characters in their own right.

Karl Gregory, Nail Nacer, and Erica Steinhagen in Gloucester Stage Company’s production of The Ding Dongs. Photo: Shawn G. Henry

The trio of actors — Gregory, Steinhagen, and Nacer — are a seamless ensemble. Gregory’s smarmy Joe is physically goofy and needy to a fault. Steinhagen’s Natalie is silly to the point of the bizarre. Yet, underneath the cartoon-confab, there’s a pool of anger and hurt. Her long, compelling monologue in the final third of the tale is touching and frightening.

Boston-area theatergoers know Nacer’s work, a succession of performances marked by a commitment to depth driven by a deeply rooted energy. He’s been well chosen for the play’s everyman, beautifully controlling the character’s slow descent into fear.

GSC artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw has brought ambition and creative passion to Gloucester Stage. With this production she shows great skill in reimagining the performance space. She’s also working to keep Gloucester’s core audience engaged while pushing them to consider new works and ideas. If the opening night of this show is any indication, it’s working. Even with the addition of about 40 seats, the house was packed, and the audience seemed to be mesmerizd by the 75-minute one-act.

Perhaps what’s most fascinating here is proof that Withers’s play has an evergreen quality to it. The Ding Dongs may prove to be prophetic. When it was written a decade after 9/11, the notion that a threatening outside force would be politically motivated was taken for granted. Joe and Natalie were strangers from another place, outsiders: “them.”

In 2023, our views of what makes us vulnerable have changed dramatically. Threats are all around us and from every conceivable source. Uncomfortable encounters pop up everywhere these days, so why not at your front door? Now, it seems, Joe and Natalie could very well be “us.”

Among the multiple possibilities at play in The Ding Dongs is the notion of displacement and the effects of climate change. Researchers estimate that within the next 80 years between 250 and 400 million people will be displaced by sea-level rise alone. And yes, a good many of those people live along the New England coast.

So, is it really that far-fetched to consider that someday someone might ring your doorbell because they’re desperate to find a home? Or perhaps it might be you doing the ringing?

With The Ding Dongs, Brenda Withers and Rebecca Bradshaw suggest that The Twilight Zone might not be all that far away.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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