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The Call

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kelly AuCoin, Eisa Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Kerry Butler.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

A collision of race, class, sexuality, abuse, and adoption, all occurring between the ticks and tocks of a biological clock about to strike midnight? The possibilities seem endless with a setup like this. And, in the first act of Tanya Barfield's new play The Call, a coproduction of Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages that just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd Street, that's exactly how they appear. What should be one of the easier things in the world, having a child, is twisted into something so complicated that your heart cries for anyone having to endure such hardship.

What makes the inciting scenes of Barfield's 110-minute play, which Leigh Silverman has directed with sensitivity, so engaging is that they don't follow an easily prescribed course. We're immediately introduced to two couples: the white and straight Peter and Annie (Kelly AuCoin and Kerry Butler) and the black and gay Rebecca and Drea (Eisa Davis and Crystal A. Dickinson). One just got married, the other is experiencing the opening runaround of trying to acquire the baby that simply won't come any other way.

Except Rebecca and Drea are the newlyweds and Peter and Annie the troubled prospective parents—and the former are considerably better adjusted than the latter. After spending years on unsuccessful fertility treatments, and spending a subsequent eternity on an American waiting list, Peter and Annie finally have a child waiting for them in Arizona—assuming, that is, the birth mother is willing to give it up, and that Peter and Annie are emotionally able to take the baby for their own when the time comes.

To avoid these psychological pitfalls (or so they think), the instead decide to adopt from Africa. It doesn't take the agency long to find them just the child to meet their needs, with no immediate family (no parents, a sister placed into another facility who died, a grandfather about to die) and thus no messy complications. Except, well, she's not really a baby—she's more of a toddler. And everyone who sees the first photo of her think she looks more like she's four years old than two and a half.

The stresses that bubble to the surface are all the more believable and relatable because of the gentle treatment Barfield gives them. She expertly manages the transitions between elation and devastation, and metes out the necessary exposition and subsequent twists with a efficiency that's breezy without being rushed. She also strikes a nearly perfect balance between drama and comedy, finding a stunning number of laughs in what's often a fraught or even tragic situation. One exchange in which the four discuss potential baby names, and the social, political, and spiritual impact of an out-of-country adoption, is alternately uproarious and unsettling in how it breaks apart the myriad challenges and meanings of parenthood.

Also terrific during this time are the actors, who conjure a palpable chemistry that hints at a powerful (and not always pleasant) history between these four friends. Butler wields her youthful exuberance like a shield, dropping it at key moments to reveal the anguished woman beneath who's terrified she'll never grow up. AuCoin smoothly captures both Peter's husbandly devotion and his self-interest, leaving you constantly wondering what side he's truly on. And Davis's easygoing, uptown elegance is an ideal complement for Dickinson's more raw, unfinished mien. You sense that, though you believe each couple belongs together, there's a chance—perhaps a large one—that either or both could split apart at any moment.

Unfortunately, a different kind of breakup occurs during Act II. Rather than letting all the simmering conflicts come to a boil naturally, Barfield nudges them along with a fifth character, Peter and Annie's African neighbor Alemu (a fine Russell G. Jones), who was seen for only seconds before intermission, but who becomes strategically and inextricably invested in Annie and Peter's choice for reasons of his own. Suddenly everything becomes about Alemu and what he wants—his relating a fable about parenthood, his desire for the couple to cart soccer balls and clean syringes to another continent, his family and what he lost when he came to America—and the focus drifts so far that the initially edgy treatise on good intentions, bad reasoning, and the prejudices in between becomes a mawkish and maudlin political morality tale.

Add in the expansion of and resolution to a creaky subplot about Rebecca's brother's death in Africa, and Peter's complicity in it, and The Call becomes about too many diffuse subjects for either it or the actors to support its weight. With the exception of AuCoin, who not only maintains but increases intensity as the play unfolds, the performers eventually settle into cartoon versions of the characters that, in Act I, were so compelling.

Neither Silverman's largesse nor the thoughtful design (a carefully revolving set by Rachel Hauck that Matt Frey has gracefully lit) that seemed to caress and expand upon the earlier feelings can help the action reacquire the sharpness and subtlety it loses. The Call never recovers from this, but it also never makes you completely forget the early scenes, when hopes and tensions are high, and life looks like it could open in any of a million directions. Alas, it's because Barfield asks so many delicious questions that disappointment reigns when the answers turn out to be so sour.

The Call
Through May 19
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral