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Cradle and All

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Greg Keller and Maria Dizzia.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Daniel Goldfarb's play Cradle and All, which is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway space, is like a living before-and-after commercial for parenthood. It's got it all: laughs (a few), seriousness (a lot), and two attractive actors (Greg Keller and Maria Dizzia) playing both the parents-who-may-be and parents-who-aren't-sure-they-should-be. It also delivers what must rank as one of the least-sentimental takes on a topic that typically has little on its mind but yanking at your heartstrings; reading the Playbill will tell you that Goldfarb is married with two children of his own, but you won't be able to tell from this play how he feels about it. Whether that makes this a lame show or a great one will depend almost entirely on your opinions about the subject. At times, Cradle and All definitely seems to be both..

Unquestionably, the first act is more complex and unusual. Claire is a turning-40 washed-up actress who's living with her boyfriend of five years, Luke, who also happens to be five years her junior. He's an antiques seller who just made his first big sale—$600,000 for a Tiffany floral—and thus is apparently on his way up. With this opening, Claire announces that she wants to take their relationship to the next level and have a baby. The problem is that she and Luke previously agreed that they never, ever wanted children, and Luke still doesn't. And as her protestations evolve, he comes to the conclusion that her desires are far more about her than they are about them, which leaves a baby not just out of the question, but the future of their relationship in doubt.

Goldfarb, who also authored the Jewish-marriage comedy Modern/Orthodox and the World War II intrigue drama The Retributionists, has a knack for off-center ideas, and he displays it with disarming cleverness in the way the sizzle of Luke and Claire's partnership gradually turns into a deep freeze. Director Sam Buntrock has effortlessly latched on to Goldfarb's cues and paced the action superbly, always keeping you just in step with the characters' evolutions and revelations.

But some errant details strain credibility to the point that it's difficult to accept what should be a universal premise. Luke apparently lusted after Claire when he saw the one torrid movie (a Keanu Reeves vehicle) in which she starred, and that film's poster still adorns the wall of their Brooklyn Heights apartment; this is a clunky, unsatisfying way to establishing the two are playing with different expectations, not least because the absence of even the slightest explanation as to how the two came together makes the notion more of a plot device than an organic occurrence. Worse, in both writing and Keller's jaggedly mannered performance, Luke is something of a cartoon. He regularly deploys phrases like "tut tut," and speaks in a needly, nasally voice that's the character's approximation of how a West Coast liberal would see an East Coast one; he even admits at one point, "I am rather taken with my own affect." Given how rigidly honest Claire is written and played, it's hard to share Luke's affection for his falseness.

Any trace of that sort of thing, however, disappears by the second act, when we travel across the hall (in Neil Patel's mirror-image version of the pre-intermission living space) to meet the couple who had a baby and are now wondering whether that was a good idea. Nate is the once-successful actor this time; he starred on a TV series for seven years, but hasn't worked for the last two. Annie gave up her job to be with their daughter, Olivia, who's now 11 months old and consuming both their lives. Neither sleeps regularly, and it's been well over a year since they made love, something that's increasingly weighing on them both. They've resolved, after meeting once with a $300-per-hour counselor, to force compulsive-crier Olivia to sleep alone for the first time. If they can make it through three hours without checking on her, the theory goes, it will set all three on the road to independence.

No, originality is not on the agenda here, and any number of sitcoms has unleashed this plot and its various fillips before. (Just one more listen of the baby monitor, an amorous attempt thwarted by a poorly timed parental impulse, the fight that ends with Luke wandering around in a rain storm, Annie's mother just won't stop calling her...) After the unvarnished look at Claire and Luke, the conventionality does wear a bit more easily than it probably should—it doesn't take long for you to be as ready as Annie and Nate for them to get on with their lives. But such ideas become commonplace not just because they're familiar but because they work, and Goldfarb and Buntrock find an overall better mix of comedy and pathos here than they do in the first act.

That Nate and Annie are on a more even playing field than their predecessors helps considerably—Keller shines here, bringing a deadpan desperation to the dad who's struggling not to be locked out of his daughter's life or upbringing just because his wife thinks she's found someone with all the answers. (In yet another unshocking plot twist, the guru turns out to know far from everything.) Dizzia might slightly overdo the anxiousness as Nate and Annie's night of togetherness rolls on, but she otherwise gives a thoughtful, well-calibrated performance in a sadder variation on the uncertain-mother archetype. Both she and Keller put the full depths of their insecurities on view, which keeps their story from ever getting stale.

At times, it's hard not to wish that Goldfarb had kept everything more natural; even the characters' names are playful almost to the point of parody. (Annie Saxe is sane, but adding Claire DesRosier, Luke Sean Joy, Nate Hamburger—all in the same play?) He may be trying to highlight that the ordeals, both real and imagined, of having children transcend traditional boundaries, and in that case he's probably right. But he doesn't need to be as extreme as he often gets here. When he wants to be honest and sobering, he can be, and Cradle and All is awash in the proof. It may argue that not everyone should be parents, even if they think they can be, but it also shows that you can find things in yourself you never expected to when a legitimate, dependent need arises. That's not an unwelcome message, whether or not you have kids.

Cradle and All
Through June 19
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenues
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