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STAGE REVIEW

A shrewd visit to suburbia - with a twist of terror

Tom Patrick Stephens (left), Brenda Withers, and Marshall York in ‘‘The Ding-Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Tom Patrick Stephens (left), Brenda Withers, and Marshall York in ‘‘The Ding-Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. (JEFF ZINN)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 13, 2011

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WELLFLEET - In “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ Brenda Withers is out to mess with your head and knock you off balance.

She succeeds. As a cat-and-mouse game steadily unfolds between a bewildered homeowner and two uninvited visitors, the mood of unease escalates into something like terror. By the end of “The Ding Dongs,’’ you feel almost as dazed and dislocated as the hapless homeowner.

You’ve also developed considerable admiration for Withers’s skills as a playwright who can toy so expertly with the line between possession and dispossession, between everyday suburban life and surreal nightmare, while adroitly dissolving that line in her own performance as one of the visitors.

Withers is best known for “Matt & Ben,’’ the clever sendup/takedown of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, on which she collaborated, as coauthor and costar, with Mindy Kaling (in her pre-“The Office’’ days).

Like “Matt & Ben,’’ “The Ding Dongs’’ runs about an hour in the production at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, which is directed by Jeffrey Withers, Brenda’s brother. There’s no shortage of wit in her new play, including a throwaway reference to “parties thrown by Madonna back when Madonna was still alive’’ that offers a reminder of the take-no-prisoners approach to celebrity culture that added spice to “Matt & Ben.’’

But overall “The Ding Dongs’’ is a journey to much darker, more allegorical territory, with atmospheric echoes of such Harold Pinter plays as “The Homecoming’’ and “The Caretaker.’’ There’s an undercurrent of menace beneath seemingly commonplace exchanges; a perfectly innocuous statement is likely to be twisted into a weapon and turned back on itself as, bit by startling bit, the humdrum domestic setting of “The Ding Dongs’’ transforms into a battleground over who’s in charge, who owns what, and what is worth owning.

That battle is one-sided, because Redelmo (Marshall York) is on the defensive almost from the moment Natalie (Withers) and her jovial husband, Joe (Tom Patrick Stephens) show up on his doorstep. Unshaven, attired in bedroom slippers and sweatpants, Redelmo seems to be in need of some shut-eye.

Natalie and Joe, however, exude caffeinated energy and relentless good cheer. In his polo shirt, Joe comes across as a suburban Everydad (albeit one with a British accent), while the fresh-scrubbed Natalie, her hair pulled back by a headband, looks every inch the soccer mom. But her eyes are a bit too wide, her Michele Bachmann smile a bit too insistent.

They inform Redelmo that Joe grew up in the house and ask if they can have a look around inside, for old times’ sake. Once they’re inside, the couple begins to lay siege to Redelmo’s psyche. (The home is sparely furnished, with muted mauve tones by set designer Richard Archer, except for the front door, which is a hellish shade of red).

Natalie and Joe circle Redelmo with words, a constant patter of reminiscences about their own lives, non sequiturs, mystifying digressions, and idle chitchat that somehow doesn’t seem so idle. They pepper him with questions about his guest room, why Redelmo’s young niece and nephew (who’ve lived with him since his brother died) play sports, what happened to the height-measurement marks Joe used to make on the wall as a boy.

Then, during a convoluted exchange with Joe that revolves around the phrase “my room,’’ Redelmo makes the mistake of saying: “I guess it just depends how you mean ‘my.’ ’’ Shortly thereafter, a package arrives, addressed to - Joe and Natalie. It won’t be the last package - or the last jolting surprise - to be delivered in “The Ding Dongs.’’

As Redelmo, the man on the receiving end of those surprises, York ably communicates a combination of confusion, anger, and fear. Stephens delivers a shrewdly modulated performance, periodically lifting the lid on Joe’s likable-bloke exterior to allow glimpses of the dark side beneath.

But it is Withers who compels constant attention. Her Natalie is a portrait in cold steel, forged by harrowing experiences that - whether or not they happened exactly as she describes them - raise big, unsettling, and largely unanswerable questions about the randomness of human suffering and about how suddenly the places we call home can be taken from us.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE DING DONGS, OR WHAT IS THE PENALTY IN PORTUGAL?

Play by Brenda Withers

Directed by: Jeffrey Withers. Set and special effects, Richard Archer. Lights, Chris Page. Costumes, Anne Miggins. Sound, Stowe Nelson.

At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Harbor Stage, Wellfleet, through Oct. 9. Tickets: $29. 508-349-9428, www.what.org