Parenthood comes with a multitude of challenges, and our hyper aware society has turned child-rearing -- once taken for granted as just one of those things that almost everybody does -- to an art, a science, and everything in between. With more and more couples now choosing to adopt children, a whole host of new parenting and childcare issues have become a part of the conversation, and many of these issues are not to be found, let alone solved, by your average 'new parent' handbook.
A co-production of Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages, "The Call" is a new play by Tanya Barfield that explores the minefield that one would-be adoptive couple must walk through before even getting their child. "The Call" looks not so much at the nitty-gritty of the process of adopting, which itself is known to be terribly lengthy and rigorous, but on the hopes, anxieties, and social pressures that go hand-in-hand with the decision to adopt -- and, specifically, adopting a child from a different culture.
When "The Call" begins, we are introduced to two different couples. Rebecca and Drea are an African-American, lesbian couple who have just returned from a trip to Africa, and they are having dinner with Annie and Peter, a white couple.
Annie and Peter inform their friends that they have already begun the process of adopting a baby from a pregnant mother in Arizona, but a lively conversation about African poverty and the helplessness they all feel regarding it seems to inspire something in Annie. When it starts looking as though the Arizona mother might not want to give up her baby after all, Annie and Peter decide to adopt from Africa instead.
This development gets a mixed reaction from Rebecca and Drea. Rebecca worries that the child might be traumatized, while Drea wonders why they want to adopt a black baby from abroad and not one from their own country. Reservations aside, Rebecca and Drea remain supportive of Peter and Annie, but Annie's own concerns become exponentially greater once they receive the fateful call from the agency and learn that the baby isn't quite what they expected.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, "The Call" features a strong five-person cast playing characters that are each affected in their own way by this impending adoption. Kelly AuCoin is sympathetic as Peter, who admirably keeps his composure even as he clearly becomes frustrated with his wife's indecision.
Kerry Butler is very good as Annie, struggling to be positive even as she seems to be losing a battle with exhaustion and disappointment after years of having her hopes dashed. Eisa Davis expertly plays Rebecca as the sort of supportive, longtime friend who thinks she knows what's best for her friends.
Crystal A. Dickinson is wonderful as the no-nonsense Drea, who reveals a deep and personal concern for the small indignities that Annie and Peter's child-to-be is likely to experience growing up with white parents. And Russell G. Jones has a pivotal role as an African neighbor who finds himself emotionally involved in Peter and Annie's decision.
Playwright Barfield doesn't settle for making this a drama about racial tensions, instead focusing most of her attention on other potential difficulties for adoptive parents. Annie and Peter come to understand that their African-born child won't just be different in skin color, but in other ways that they don't expect -- and even fear.
Adding further texture to "The Call" is an interesting back-story between Peter and Rebecca. Peter was once close friends with Rebecca's brother, and the two men took their own trip to Africa in their youth. Revelations about this trip, about which Peter has always been reluctant to talk, bring an extra dimension to the play.
Despite its many merits, "The Call" is not without flaws. Some of the characters lack depth, dialogue doesn't always ring true, a couple of early scenes are a bit slow, and Peter and Annie's decision to adopt a baby from Africa happens too quickly. But these are minor complaints in an otherwise engaging play that stimulates plenty of thought and post-show discussion.
"The Call" runs through May 26 at Playwright Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-564-1235 or www.playwrightshorizons.org.