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Dusk Rings a Bell Star Paul Sparks New York Times feature









“Paul Sparks’ halting, haunted performance perfectly captures Ray, a man who can’t quite explain his past.” – New York Times


“Sparks’ wonderfully low-keyed natural performance proves yet again why he’s one of New York’s most brilliant and underrated actors.” – NY-1 News



Paul Sparks, now starring in Stephen Belber’s world premiere play DUSK RINGS A BELL, is profiled with a New York Times “Arts & Leisure” feature this week.


Directed by Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation) and co-starring Kate Walsh (“Private Practice,” “Grey’s Anatomy”), DUSK RINGS A BELL plays through Saturday, June 26 Off-Broadway at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16 Street).


NEW YORK TIMES – June 20, 2010


Embracing a Tragic Masculinity

By David Rooney

Since he first gained attention on a New York stage 10 years ago, as a neo-Nazi on death row in “Coyote on a Fence,” Paul Sparks has played manic addicts, antisocial misfits, bitter philanderers and other casualties of mismanaged existence.

More by accident than by design, he has specialized in men who have sabotaged their lives with bad decisions and reprehensible behavior, their innate intelligence usually making their self-inflicted wounds cut deeper.

The surprise, when meeting Mr. Sparks, 38, is how unlike his bruised, brooding characters he seems. Mild mannered and deferential almost to the point of shyness, he shows no trace of the vanity that often comes with being an actor, nor of the destructive personalities he has played so well.

“To me it’s hilarious because I grew up so normal,” Mr. Sparks said, reflecting on the roles he has played. “I’m from a small town in Oklahoma. My father was a football coach, and my mother was a schoolteacher. I had no drug problem. My parents didn’t hit me. None of that stuff.”

In the plays of Adam Rapp, a friend with whom he has often worked, Mr. Sparks might ingest nothing but Cheez Doodles and pharmaceuticals. In person he politely explains that he’s a Type 1 diabetic while giving himself an insulin shot and then sipping a bowl of vichyssoise at the theater district restaurant Angus McIndoe.

His characters have traveled the rocky byways of contemporary masculinity mapped by a whole crew of white, male, 40-something American playwrights, among them Mr. Rapp; Craig Wright, another close friend; and Tracy Letts. The latest to join that list is Stephen Belber, whose two-character play, “Dusk Rings a Bell,” has garnered Mr. Sparks the kind of ecstatic reviews for which many actors wait their entire careers.

“I think there’s a group of us playwrights that have been onto Paul for a while,” Mr. Belber said, adding that he had wanted to work with Mr. Sparks since seeing him perform at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia almost a decade ago. “He’s kind of the anti-acting actor, which I’m a big fan of, when you’re not aware of someone acting. Paul listens to the essence of the character in a way that I rarely have come across.”

That process is most intriguing to Mr. Sparks when he is playing conflicted men. “The characters I’ve played that I like the most are people that have a lot of obstacles,” he said. “They have a lot of bad things going on. They’re seeking to do something good amidst all the detritus around them, and they’re aware of how badly they’ve screwed it up. That kind of self-awareness is tragic.”

Such painful introspection applies in particular to Ray in “Dusk Rings a Bell,” who is both an extension of Mr. Sparks’s gallery of problem portraits and a departure into more penetrating emotional territory.

A summer-house caretaker mowing lawns in a quiet Delaware beach town, Ray spent 10 years in prison for his bystander role in a hate crime, and he continues to carry images of that violence with him every day. In Mr. Sparks’s soft-spoken performance, Ray lives in a melancholy limbo between searching for redemption and being reconciled to its impossibility.

The play co-stars Kate Walsh, of the ABC dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” as Molly, an emotionally unfulfilled CNN executive who has a chance encounter with Ray 25 years after they shared a kiss on a lifeguard stand.

That setup might sound closer to another Sparks — the popular novelist Nicholas Sparks, who is no relation to the actor — but the intimate duet orchestrated by Mr. Belber and Sam Gold, who directed the production at Atlantic Stage 2 in Chelsea, is no syrupy affair.

A significant part of the play’s complexity comes from the subtlety and thoughtfulness of Mr. Sparks’s performance, and from the natural chemistry between him and Ms. Walsh as two people reaching for an unlikely shot at love. She’s compulsively verbal and physical; he’s taciturn and largely passive. Yet in a performance built around watching, listening and contemplating, Mr. Sparks injects laconic Ray with sly touches of prickly humor.

Simultaneously awkward and self-possessed, he has the sleepy delivery and needling cynicism of Bill Murray and the haunted intensity of Daniel Craig. Groundedness, heart, humanity and vulnerability are among the characteristics Ms. Walsh said he brings to the part. Mr. Belber adds genuineness to that list.

“He’s incredibly humble and absolutely honest,” Ms. Walsh said in a phone interview. “There’s never a false note.

“The piece itself is so exposing. The only thing either of us has is our clothes. So we have our pockets, and we have each other. From Day 1 Paul was just so present and available. It’s an odd piece, and if you don’t have someone that’s completely available to you, it would be a disaster.”




Stage Scenes: Paul Sparks

Photos from some of the actor’s past stage performances



Molly and Ray unexpectedly meet 25 years after a one-afternoon adolescent fling. She has a successful media career; he owns a small landscaping business. Both begin to romanticize their chance reunion, but a renewed connection is disrupted when Ray discloses the details of a crime that left him incarcerated for ten years. Their encounter reveals two vastly different paths taken and two lonely souls attempting to reclaim a moment of possibility, when they were young and perhaps at their very best.


DUSK RINGS A BELL plays Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30p and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30pm.There will be a Wednesday matinee at 2:30pm on June 23.


All non-member tickets are $50 and available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 (ticketcentral.com) or in person at ATLANTIC STAGE 2’s box office located at 330 West 16th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). 


For general inquiries and group sales for both the main stage Linda Gross Theater and Atlantic Stage 2, call 212-645-1242.




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