The New Jersey Repertory Co. in Long Branch kicks off its 2018 season with The Calling, a two-character one-act play that has, at its core, age-old questions about God’s master plan and His mercy toward His human creations. While I have seen many plays that would be improved by being shortened, this is a play which could have been improved by being longer.
Playwright Joel Stone, whose works have been presented in past seasons at NJ Rep, introduces us to Father Dan, who has just performed a funeral service for an elderly parishioner. While cleaning up the church, the priest comes across Carl, who has dozed off in a pew. As they chat, we find out Carl is a male nurse, working in the local hospital’s intensive care unit; that he is a lapsed Catholic; and that the deceased parishioner was one of his patients. The conversation soon turns into a challenge for the priest to restore the nurse’s faith. The two men take opposite sides on proof of God’s existence, whether He has a master plan that is inscrutable to man, and if He is truly merciful or merely capricious.
In its less than ninety-minute run time, Stone’s play tries to make profound statements on both sides of the argument. However, there seem to be more places in this play where the surface is only skimmed on the issues raised, instead of being explored in more depth. Worse, there is information brought up during the course of the play about the backgrounds of the characters that, once introduced, are never used. The play’s ultimate confrontation, based on the nature of responsibility for one’s actions, has a reduced impact because of these lacks in depth and extraneous bits of information. Had the playwright explored the depths of his characters and tied up some loose ends — perhaps by having a second act or extending the single act — this show might have been more satisfying at its conclusion.
Director Evan Bergman, who helmed last year’s season-ending hit Mutual Philanthropy, and actors Ames Adamson (Father Dan) and Jared Michael Delaney (Carl) do their best with the script. Adamson succeeds in showing us a decent man who clings to his religious faith while trying to offer hope in a world of uncertainties. His Father Dan knows that there is only so much he can do and prays that belief and trust in a higher power will be enough to make up for human frailty. Delaney’s nurse stands in contrast to the priest: Carl’s faith having been long lost, his work alleviating suffering in others is where his actions have meaning. Occasionally the conflict between nurse and priest strikes dramatic sparks, but the lack of depth in the play prevents those sparks from creating sustained emotional fire.
This is more a play in progress than a finished piece of work. Still, it is worth seeing for what it could become if the playwright gives his ideas the room they need to be truly, fully effective on the audience. If this is the type of theatrical experience you cherish, then take the opportunity to see The Calling.
The Calling is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Co. at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through Feb. 14. For tickets and information, visit njrep.org.