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A CurtainUp Review
The Call
By Jordan G. Teicher
"I mean, say there's a kid, a baby, born into abject poverty -- our hope certainly isn't going to change her poverty."— Annie
The Call
(l-r) Elisa Davis and Crystal A. Dickinson
(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

When Annie floats the idea of adopting a child from Africa, her husband Peter's first reaction is that it would be "too trendy." As he explains, "We'll have to deal with everyone thinking we're making a baby-fashion statement."

But that turns out to be the least of their concerns in Tanya Barfield's new drama, which swirls around questions of race and responsibility in the maelstrom of this decision.

Barfield's script is tight, and the actors do it service under Leigh Silverman's direction. But Barfield, who has a history of crafting smart dramas and comedies tackling issues of race and history (including her 2006 Blue Door, also with Silverman at Playwrights Horizons), does not deliver much nuance here, and the result feels like a morality play.

That's mostly because Annie (Kerry Butler) and Peter (Kelly AuCoin) are textbook white people. As the play opens, for instance, they're eating mango coulis and drinking Bordeaux Blanc in their home (an impressive rotating set by Rachel Hauck) with their "only black friends"— lesbian couple Rebecca (Elisa Davis) and Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson).

From the moment the pair announce their intention to move forward with the adoption, we know, it's just a matter of time before the situation tears their marriage and their friendships apart.

And so it goes. Annie receives word that the adoption agency has found them a daughter, and she's instantly enamored with the idea of saving the girl ("This girl is supposed to be with me; or me with her. We're supposed to be. . ." she says).

But the fantasy quickly crumbles. The unreliability of the information about the girl begins to weigh on Annie. She starts to dread the prospect of a lifetime of dealing with all the baggage of a stranger from an unstable part of the world, including the possibility of poor health and a traumatic past. "We didn't ask to solve the world's problems, we asked for a baby," she says.

What follows is a will-they-won't-they drama whose outcome seems to implicate not just the lives of one couple but the entire state of global race relations. The stakes are high, and they only escalate with the introduction of Alemu (Russell G. Jones), Annie and Peter's African neighbor, into the action. His character seems an all-too-convenient stand-in for Africa's harsh realities. At first, a warm and seemingly innocuous character, Alemu comes to embody the indignant moral stance at the center of the play when he insists Annie deliver a package on her adoption scouting trip to Africa — "the continent not the country," he reminds her, either jokingly or condescendingly.

That blanket hostility eventually starts to drag the play down. Annie and Pete, it seems, just can't help but be hopelessly out of touch and bourgeois (Peter floats the name Emma Mercedes for their future daughter) while weighing their decision. The condemnation from their black friends, meanwhile, inches toward climax and it seems we are meant only to increasingly begrudge Annie her selfishness. When that reaches fever pitch it's accompanied by a revelation about Peter's relationship to Rebecca's deceased brother and a genuinely tragic tale from Alemu. Between the two of them it's enough, apparently, to reverse the tide of the action and bring the play to a tidy end.

What it all means, ultimately, never gets more clearly expressed than in the play's opening, when Rebecca and Drea tell a story of their trip to Africa: They were on safari with a tour group and their jeep broke down. Lions began to circle their vehicle and they only narrowly escaped disaster.
The parable may not be subtle, but it gets to the point: They want be close to the continent without accepting any of its perils. It's an attitude worthy of exploration, but The Call doesn't give it any space to seem anything but hypocritical.

The Call by Tanya Barfield
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Kelly AuCoin (Peter), Kerry Butler (Annie), Eisa Davis (Rebecca), Crystal A. Dickinson (Drea), Russell G. Jones (Alemu)
Set Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Matt Frey
Sound Design: Jill BC DuBoff
Stage Manager: Vanessa Coakley
Running Time: 110 minutes with intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036, (212) 279-4200
From 3/22/13; opening 4/14/13; closing 5/26/13
Performance times: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 & 7 pm, with additional Wednesday matinee performances on April 24 at 2 pm and May 1 at 2 pm.
Ticket cost: $60 with some premium seats available at $72
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at April 13 performance.
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