Adoption, a touchy subject in all instances, is the ostensible topic of The Call (Playwrights Horizons), a small, tautly written, tidy—perhaps over-tidy–new play by the gifted Tanya Barfield. And like some adopted children, The Call turns out to bear the scars of hidden traumas. A chunk of its characters’ past rises up, seemingly from nowhere, first muddling the play’s tidiness and then, ultimately, detaching it entirely from the issue that had seemed to be at its core.
A white couple, Annie (Kerry Butler), an artist, and her husband, Peter (Kelly AuCoin), having struggled and failed (three miscarriages) in their attempts to produce a child, decide to adopt. With the apparently enthusiastic support of the black lesbian couple who seem to be their closest friends, Rebecca (Eisa Davis) and Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson), they locate a prospective child in an orphanage in Africa.
On all fronts, things quickly turn out to be not what they seem. Questions about the child’s age and background crop up. So do remarks from Rebecca and Drea that ring like warning bells, hinting that surface enthusiasm can hide hostilities. The prospect of a biracial family supplies extra pressure that makes both Peter and Annie question not only their desire for a child but the condition of their marriage. Their next-door neighbor (Russell G. Jones), a cheerful African man, alternately intrusive and cryptically remote, gives the whole affair an extra touch of paranoia.
And then, abruptly, it all seems to hinge on a piece of barely mentioned backstory involving Peter’s long-ago friendship with Rebecca’s deceased brother. Once we finally get this information, it scatters everything else to the winds. Not only does this fuzzy piece of pre-plot have nothing to do with the cultural disjunction between a white American couple and a child from Africa, it makes a hash of the already tangled connections among the four main characters, leaving the event in a puzzling narrative limbo.
The pity of it is that Barfield writes, line for line, with strong, astringent effectiveness, putting forward ideas that shoot off sparks of dramatic excitement. Leigh Silverman’s production, though laden with over-elaborate scenery for such an intimate piece, matches the script in strength, producing five first-class performances, with the sight of Butler’s beautiful face, harrowed by the pain and perlexity of the later scenes, as an image to lock it all permanently in the audience’s memory.