At the start of “The Calling,” a world premiere play that will be at NJ Repertory Company through Feb. 4, Dan (played by Ames Adamson), a middle-aged priest, is cleaning up his church. He has just finished a funeral service, and is walking through the rows of pews, collecting books and putting stray tissues into a wastebasket. Then he comes across Carl (played by Jared Michael Delaney), a younger man who is not one of his regular parishioners. Carl has fallen asleep in a pew.
Carl wakes up, and the two men begin to talk. Carl seems pretty benign at first, but Dan still senses that something is wrong. You don’t often find someone sleeping like that. I mean, people may nod off during a sermon, but to lie down and fall into a deep snooze? That doesn’t exactly happen every day.
Father Dan worries that Carl is planning to rob him. If only it were that simple! Carl is actually a lapsed Catholic and, as it comes out as they continue to talk, going through a personal crisis so severe he may be dangerous to himself or others.
“The Calling” is a two-person play, so it really comes as no surprise that it turns out to be, pretty much, a 90-minute verbal sparring match, as Dan tries to defuse the danger and get Carl on the right path, and Carl, revealing more and more about himself and his quiet desperation, fights back.
Naturally, a lot of the discussion is theological in nature. But we also find out a lot about both men’s lives, and how they both arrived at this moment. Not surprisingly, since Dan says he thinks Carl looks familiar, early on, we eventually learn that they share some history.
NJ Rep is describing “The Calling” — which was written by Joel Stone (an adjunct professor of playwriting at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, as well as NJ Rep’s literary manager) and directed, here, by Evan Bergman — as a “psychological thriller, peppered with comic relief.” That’s a good description, as there is a lot of tension in it, as well as some occasional laughs.
I thought there was a major problem, though, with the character Carl. The “thriller” part of the play depends on a series of shifts regarding that character. Who is he, what does he want, and why is it so important to him to create this confrontation with Dan?
As we learn more about him, of course, our understanding of him changes. But, for me, everything doesn’t add up. In other words, once the real Carl is revealed, some of his earlier statements and actions didn’t make sense, and the character ends up seeming a bit contrived.
Adamson and Delaney perform with admirable intensity, though, and I liked the way set designer Jessica Parks re-created the warm, welcoming feel of a small church, with the rows of pews dominating the space, and symbolizing how Dan’s religion tries to impose a sort of order on the chaotic world.
“The Calling” is at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 4; visit njrep.org.