May 11, 2013

"The Call" Tries to Say Too Much

Performers who’ve made their name in musicals often jump at the chance to show that they can do straight dramatic roles as well.  In just the past year, Norbert Leo Butz and Nathan Lane have shown how nimble they can be with superb performances in How I Learned to Drive and The Nance. The latest to make that move is Kerry Butler, perhaps best known as the roller-blading muse in Xanadu but now starring in The Call, a new drama about interracial adoption that is playing in a joint production by Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages through May 26.

The Call tells the story of Annie and Peter, a white couple, who, after many failed attempts to conceive a child, decide to adopt a baby from Africa. Their best friends, an African-American lesbian couple, are equal parts supportive (they want their friends to be happy) and skeptical (they wonder how Annie will deal with a black child’s hair).

The plot, as they say, thickens when the adoption agency makes the titular call to say that it has found a child but she is slightly different from what Annie and Peter had expected. Will they still take her?  Will the experience redefine their feelings about parenthood and even about one another?

Playwright Tanya Barfield is the mother of two children adopted from Ethiopia and she writes with great empathy about people who desperately want to be parents. (Click here to read about how her own experience informed the play).    

But Barfield trips herself up by layering on so many other issues— homosexuality, AIDS, poverty in Africa, relationships between blacks and whites in this country—that the central questions almost get lost.  

Indeed, even Barfield has trouble keeping up with all of it:  the gay couple actually gets married twice but for no apparent reason. And an emotional speech by Annie and Peter’s African neighbor, nicely played by Russell G. Jones, goes on so long that I think I might have dozed off.

What keeps the show on track (and kept me awake) are the performances, particularly Butler’s. The actress is also the mother of two young daughters adopted from Africa (click here to read about that) and she conveys Annie’s hunger to be a mother with heartbreaking clarity. 

Kelly AuCoin is equally affecting as Peter.  Meanwhile, Crystal A. Dickinson provides comic relief as the more outspoken of the two black friends. And, in the play's least flashy role, Eisa Davis is quite good, too, although she and Dickinson display none of the chemistry you'd expect from newlyweds.

Still, the maternal relationship is the primal one here. And despite whatever reservations I may have, Barfield gets points for at least trying to connect the personal preoccupations of upper middle-class folks that dominate so many contemporary plays with the political concerns of the rest of the world, which appear in far too few of them.

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