Parenthood, the eternal subject of entertainment, is considered from both perspectives – parents without children and parents of a newborn baby – in Cradle and All, a surprisingly poignant and moving comedy in performances at the Manhattan Theater Club. Daniel Goldfarb’s script, performed ably by Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller, presents two couples who live across the hall from each other in a Brooklyn apartment building.
In the first act, “Infantry,” Claire and Luke co-habitate in an impeccably spotless apartment. Claire is a former actress and Luke works for his uncle, selling antiques. Unmarried but apparently happy, the duo’s relationship shows signs of unraveling when she informs him she wants to have a baby. Needless to say, Luke does not share Claire’s enthusiasm. They had agreed, he says, to not have children when they got involved, and he questions Claire’s motivation. Does she actually want to be a mother, or is her desire inspired by her lack of success as an adult actress?
“Our careers have totally superseded everything else,” Claire says to Luke. “And neither of us even like our careers. We go to the same restaurants and order the same dishes and have the same conversations as we eat those same dishes.”
As Claire, Dizzia gives a carefully nuanced, sympathetic performance. She does not look the part of an aging actress who remembers how pretty she used to be, but the depth of her performance supercedes the willing suspension of disbelief that is required of the audience. Her hunger for a child is apparent and understandable, thanks to Dizzia’s performance. Keller’s Luke is written as a much less sympathetic character, firmly resolved to not have children. This decision, he says, is motivated by an unhappy childhood. This resolve appears cold and unsympathetic to Claire’s pleas, but Keller hints at the real pain behind Luke’s decision.
The second act, named “The Extinction Method,” introduces the audience to Annie and Nate, parents of an eleven month old baby who they are letting cry herself to sleep for the first time. Clearly struggling with this decision, which was made with the help of a professional sleep specialist, Annie and Nate are left with nothing but each other for the evening’s entertainment and it’s clear they are clashing. The guilt they feel about letting their daughter cry herself to sleep is lashed out on each other and themselves. The toll of sleeplessness and the general havok that a newborn has wreaked on their marriage is apparent. Annie, dressed in sweatpants and her hair is in a messy knot, is clearly too tired to focus on her appearance, and Nate’s cheery determination to make everyone happy and bake cookies only exacerbates her irritability.
In the second act, it is the mother who appears less sympathetic and the father who inspires the pity of the audience. However, neither one is the “good guy” or “bad guy.” They are simply parents – exhausted, stressed and frustrated parents.
A cluttered, chaotic set, strewn with toys and books, exemplifies the chaos of Annie and Nate’s life. As they lash out at each other about careers, parenting techniques and their mothers, one wonders what their marriage was like before they became parents. Were they always this angry at each other, or were they truly happy before? Was this baby an attempt to save their marriage, or did they go into pregnancy confident they would be a perfect team?
Surprisingly resonant, but also surprisingly sad, Cradle and All is a thought-provoking presentation of modern family – whatever that is these days.