Brenda Withers’s surreal comic mystery “The Ding Dongs” has become what the playwright, actress, and theater impresario calls a “fulcrum” in her life. The absurdist tale, which premiered to acclaim at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in 2011, is receiving a new production at Gloucester Stage Company Aug. 11-27.
“It keeps coming back to the center of a lot for me,” Withers says over Zoom from her summer home on Cape Cod. The unsettling cat-and-mouse thriller, with its shades of Kafka, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Caryl Churchill, centers on a hapless homeowner facing two perky interlopers who ring his doorbell one afternoon, insidiously maneuver their way into his house, and then refuse to leave.
Indeed, “The Ding Dongs” was the first play Withers wrote when she bolted from Hollywood, a few years after the early-career breakthrough she had with the 2003 celebrity satire “Matt & Ben.” The downtown hit imagined the nascent years of Hollywood golden boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which she wrote and starred in with her Dartmouth College roommate Mindy Kaling. That fringe phenomenon propelled Withers and Kaling to Los Angeles and led to a lucrative television deal for the duo. But Withers felt the pressure to follow up “Matt & Ben” with an onscreen hit. “That can be really inhibiting, especially when you’re young,” she says.
While Kaling, a Massachusetts native, went on to become an acting-writing-producing powerhouse, Withers realized that Hollywood wasn’t for her and returned to New England. “The world I had been catapulted into from ‘Matt & Ben’ was about money, commercial success, and things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t tuned into it.”
Soon she found a theatrical home on Cape Cod, where she met “an adventurous group of people [who] really inspired me and made me feel like I could take some chances,” she says. “I realized, ‘Oh, it’s actually about the play and the work and not about the rest of the trappings.’ I wanted to keep making strange, small experiments. So finding a community that had the same taste for something offbeat made me feel this was the right career path.”
She started writing again, and out poured “The Ding Dongs.”
In the play, Redelmo (Nael Nacer), who’s raising his deceased brother’s two kids, has his world turned upside down when a seemingly typical suburban couple, affable Joe (Karl Gregory) and forceful Natalie (Erica Steinhagen), arrive on his doorstep and ask to be let in. Joe claims that his parents used to live in the house. Redelmo tries to discourage them, but their demands — and the stakes — escalate. Then an unsettling series of boxes get delivered. This new version of the play, first staged at the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, N.Y., last winter, is directed by Gloucester Stage artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw.
The genesis of the play, Withers says, can be traced to a news story she read about a skirmish in the Middle East. “I felt frustrated, and I started thinking about land and property, and I wanted to find a way to speak about it that didn’t feel outside of my experience. A lot of what I was reading about in the newspaper felt distant yet still captivating. I wanted to explore it respectfully. So I tried to find a lens that I could do that through.”
She set the play in the suburbs, a place she knew well from growing up on Long Island. “It’s a setting that’s familiar, until it’s not,” she says, “until it becomes surreal.”
As she wrote it, she was also thinking about “civility and how far we’ll let people get in order to maintain good manners,” she explains. “What happens when you finally push back on someone and say, ‘These are actually my boundaries’ or ‘This is what is making me uncomfortable.’”
While “The Ding Dongs” is laugh-out-loud funny at times, Withers hopes that it prompts audiences to think about gentrification, the displacement of humans around the globe, and what makes a home. “How good an idea is private property? It seems quite organic, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s conditioned and learned, and maybe it’s the root of a lot of evil,” she says. “But what’s the alternative to living that way?”
For the past 15 years, Withers has carved out a home on Cape Cod (she also lives in New York’s Hudson Valley) — first at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and then at Harbor Stage Company, which she cofounded in 2012 with Stacy Fischer, Robert Kropf, and her partner, Jonathan Fielding. The foursome do everything from acting, writing, and directing to administration and working the box office. “It’s been the greatest home, lab, strange experiment, ladder, pit,” Withers says, with a chuckle.
Summer is always the busy season for Withers, but this one is especially so. Not only is “The Ding Dongs” being mounted at Gloucester Stage, but the Harbor produced Withers’s screwball showbiz farce “Bread & Butter” in June. Withers appeared in that show and will be seen in the Harbor’s production of Lucas Hnath’s acclaimed mystery “The Thin Place,” running through Sept. 3.
For years, Withers has juggled both acting and writing. She’s written more than a dozen plays, including “Dindin,” which her friend and former colleague Brendan Hughes turned into a movie that will premiere at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival in Vermont on Aug. 25. As with “The Ding Dongs,” the story — set at a dinner party with two couples — is tinged with a streak of the sinister, and the commonplace becomes nightmarish.
“I’ve often been labeled a writer of menace. You’ve met me now. I don’t really present that way,” she says with a laugh.
Withers, 45, has long been preoccupied with “justice’s relationship to compassion,” she says. “I’m curious about our sense of fairness and how far we’ll go to make something ‘right’ and how time will make us say, ‘Oh, that was a little harsh. That went too far.’ Or how understanding people a little bit more will make us second guess. It’s probably the great question of my life, and I think it sneaks into all my plays.”
The unexpected success of “Matt & Ben” was like a strange dream, Withers notes. “It was a joke that blew up — in a good way for us. It was weird to be so young and have that success. I’m sure it shaped me in ways I still don’t understand.”
The few years she spent in Los Angeles was “an eye opener” and helped her figure out what she wanted. While she and Kaling landed a network development deal in the mid-2000s and filmed a pilot called “Mindy & Brenda,” Withers saw that Hollywood wasn’t the place for her. Indeed, it helped her realize that theater, where collaboration is key and writers have more control, was perhaps her true calling.
And it all began with “The Ding Dongs.”
“Returning to the theater for writing opened it back up for me. Now I can’t stop writing plays,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, my gosh, I need to slow down!”
THE DING DONGS
Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Aug. 11-27. Tickets from $15. 978-281-4433, www.GloucesterStage.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.