Thursday, May 26, 2011

Two Couples, One Baby

Dizzia and Keller in Cradle and All (photo by Joan Marcus)

Cradle and All
Written by Daniel Goldfarb
Directed by Sam Buntrock
Starring Maria Dizzia, Greg Keller

Performances through June 19, 2011
Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street

Daniel Goldfarb’s The Retributionists might have reduced Nazi-era horrors to mere soap opera, but his slight new comedy Cradle and All engagingly shows how having (or not having) a child affects two couples in the same Brooklyn Heights apartment building.

The first half, Infantry, introduces Claire, a 39-year-old (or is it 41?) former movie actress whose fertility clock is winding down. She tells reluctant boyfriend Luke that she wants a baby, triggering confessional soul-searching on her part (he’s pretty much reduced to a listener). The second half, The Extinction Method, set in the apartment down the hall, has zombified parents Annie and Nate trying one last-ditch attempt to get their 11-month-old daughter to fall asleep without placating her, however long she cries. Needless to say, she carries on for hours, driving them to reexamine their very relationship.

Throughout Cradle and All, Goldfarb shows a knack for how adults deal with momentous events missing from The Retributionists: his clever dialogue catches all the attendant recriminations, insults and occasional reconciliations, even if much of what happens remains superficial.

Although The Extinction Method seems more successful because there are more laughs, I actually liked the more somber Infantry, and not merely because too many of Method’s jokes are repeated (how many times can we hear the baby’s screaming and the couple’s increasingly harried attempts to deal with it?). Infantry actually tries to bring a character to life, as Claire gives a lengthy speech, punctuated by Luke’s interjections, that explains her motives for wanting a baby at this time in her life. Maria Dizzia, giving a splendid and moving reading, actually makes us feel for Claire, personalizing her predicament in ways that Goldfarb only hints at in his writing,.

Dizzia is as convincingly frumpy as overtired mother Annie in Method as she is ravishingly desperate in Infantry; conversely, Greg Keller, who doesn’t make much of an impression in Infantry because Goldfarb isn’t as interested in Luke, works harder and more effectively as Method's Nate.

Goldfarb’s ear for how these people talk is hampered by too much pop culture name-checking, as references to Mad Men, Keanu Reeves, Blue Man Group, Tyra Banks, James Lipton and The Daily Show abound. The playwright does hit on trenchant lines, as how young girls engaging in oral sex in grade school are “part of the Clinton legacy,” and the final dialogue between Annie and Nate while they prepare to have sex for the first time since her pregnancy has an appropriately acidic edge to its humor.

Sam Buntrock’s by-the-numbers direction of Infantry gives way to the livelier Method, likely due to the second half’s lighter touch. Both of Neil Patel’s apartment sets are so dead-on in their details that one wants to move right in: but only if these couples and their baby problems are jettisoned.

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