Two men. One, an aging priest whose belief that God is merciful and Jesus is his savior, has never wavered. The other, a middle-aged lapsed Catholic who’s an ICU nurse ministering to very sick people, who agonizes over what kind of God let’s good souls suffer.
Both men are passionate about helping people. Both are deeply concerned about human life and death. Both come to drastically different conclusions about God’s purpose in all of this. And both believe he is right.
That’s the premise of Joel Stone’s interesting two-hander “The Calling,” receiving its world premiere through Feb. 4 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch.
Commissioned by NJPAC’s Stage Exchange in association with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and NJ Rep, the 90-minute work is Stone’s first full-length play in 44 years. (He specializes in short plays and one-acts, several produced here, and is an adjunct professor of playwriting at Monmouth University and literary manager for NJ Rep.)
Set in a small church following a funeral Mass for Mrs. Callahan, Father Dan (Ames Adamson) finds Carl (Jared Michael Delaney) asleep in one of the pews. He shakes him awake and Carl, having worked a double shift and scheduled for another in a few hours, is somewhat belligerent. At first the priest thinks Carl plans to steal church valuables. Then someone he knows since he never forgets a face. And he’s right.
Carl says he’s there to pay his respects to Mrs. Callahan, who was one of his patients. Actually it’s Carl’s eight or ninth funeral here of former patients, says the burned out nurse.
The play is billed as a “comic psychological thriller,” which is overstating things a bit. There are laughs sprinkled throughout, and some surprises — although the biggest one concerning Carl’s actions and motive you can see coming long before it arrives — as well as anxiety and apprehension toward the end. But mostly, it’s a serious religious debate that becomes more and more heated until it takes a really nasty turn.
The play was directed by Evan Bergman, a regular here. Delaney’s stressed out critical care nurse is excellent. He builds his character bit by bit until an explosive end. He prowls the stage (impressive set design and lighting by Jessica Park and Jill Nagle, respectively) walking on the pews and some cursing as a sign of disrespect for Catholicism. Adamson has less to work with as a one-dimensional tired old guy until the last 30 minutes of the play when he come alive with his back literally is against the wall and he’s fighting for his life more than his convictions.
It takes Stone too long to get to the crux of the play — the real reason Karl chose this funeral and this night to confront Father Dan. A tighter one-act might have worked better theatrically. Or perhaps a two-act with a few more characters to give it heft.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (732) 229-3166 or visit http://www.njrep.org. Tickets $46. Performances Thursdays, Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. This review first appeared in the Jan. 11, 2018, issue of the Two River Times.