Sometimes, a detail in a scenic design reveals more about a play than is intended. In one of the early scenes in The Call by Tanya Barfield, Anne and Peter are painting the bedroom of a child they plan to adopt. While a couple of the large wall panels are painted white, three of the panels are only partly finished, with a few random roller swipes of paint drying on the existing dark red surfaces.
And the first thought is: Who paints a room like that — starting one panel then jumping to another and then to a third? It makes no sense. In a similar way, Barfield's script jumps from one subject area to another, makes a few swipes at engaging the subject at hand, and then flits off in another direction.
The supposed issue at the core of this play is the desire of a metropolitan white couple, Anne and Peter, to have a child. After multiple miscarriages and other failed efforts, they have decided to adopt. And they agree that adopting a baby from Africa would perfectly fit their bill.
When they announce their decision to their best friends, an African-American lesbian couple, some doubts intercede. While Rebecca is excited about the prospect of her long-time friend Anne being a mother, Rebecca's partner Drea has doubts. She wonders at first why Peter and Anne couldn't adopt an African-American child here in the States. And later, Rebecca questions Anne's ability to accurately convey African cultural information and attitudes to the child.
These are compelling questions and ripe fodder for theatrical exploration. But unaccountably, playwright Barfield keeps veering away from involved discussion of these issues just as they seem ready to catch fire. This hesitancy is telegraphed in the first scene, a laborious and essentially unnecessary description of a safari Rebecca and Drea recently went on in Africa. It's as if Barfield doesn't really want to grapple with the very subject she is about to introduce.
These scripting feints continue throughout. Act 1 ends with Anne and Peter becoming aware that the girl they're adopting isn't a baby, but more like 4 years old. In this world of overseas adoption, an older child indicates the possibility that the young girl might have serious medical or psychological issues.
But as Act 2 begins, that thematic momentum is tossed aside as Anne and Peter's apartment neighbor, a conveniently placed African native named Alemu, meets Anne by accident in a dog park. This shy and smiling man then morphs into a Robin Williams-like improv artist and regales her with an African tale ending in a profound pronouncement. He tells her, as if speaking from Mount Olympus: "You want a child from Africa, but you don't want Africa." Oh, snap!
And finally, Barfield completely destroys any pretense at being serious about the whole white-Americans-adopting-an-African-child thing by throwing a whole new subplot on the fire. This involves David, Rebecca's brother, who a few years earlier volunteered in Africa with Peter. David's tragic demise leads to some additional soul searching but very little dramatic tension, since it is never woven into the rest of the story in any meaningful way.
As a result of all these switchovers, the script of The Call poses a daunting challenge. Director Matthew Wright and his five actors do what they can with this material. Ursula Cataan is a believable Anne, registering her character's longing for motherhood in touching ways. And even though Peter is too often left to pout and/or glower off on the side, Abraham Adams makes him as sympathetic as possible.
In the role of Rebecca, the fine actor Carly Germany gets off to a startlingly over-the-top beginning — think "Crazy Eyes" Warren from Orange Is the New Black, high on angel dust—as she regales Anne and Peter with the exhaustive safari anecdote. But she soon settles down into a more recognizable form and relates well with a properly dour Corlesia Smith as Drea. But understandably, Germany seems at a loss to communicate Rebecca's emotional reaction over the loss of her brother, since it seems there are at least two scenes missing that would have set up that moment.
Nathan A. Lilly performs with precise control as Alemu, but even he can't make sense of this character who seems to have been dropped into the plot by accident from an earlier revision. In particular, Alemu's insistence on bringing boxes of supplies (disposable hypodermic needles, used sneakers) for his neighbors to take to Africa defies logic on many levels.
It's always a shame when a play targets an important topic and falls short. But with The Call, it feels like the playwright just keeps pivoting away from the bull's-eye, firing arrows off in all directions.