Every few months, a new study emerges arguing that children drain income, strain marriages, and compromise parents’ mental health. Matters don’t improve until the little ones leave for college. But Daniel Goldfarb’s baby-addled Cradle and All, directed by Sam Buntrock at MTC, suggests it’s the childless who suffer.
The evening plays out in two adjacent Brooklyn Heights apartments, inhabited by two couples portrayed by the same fine actors, Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller. The first act concerns Claire, an out-of-work actress, and her boyfriend, Luke, an antiques dealer. The second act moves next door to Annie, a stay-at-home mom, and Nate, another struggling thesp. This night is a charged one for both frazzled pairs: Claire will attempt to convince Luke to impregnate her; Annie and Nate plan to quiet their one-year-old with a severe style of sleep training known as “The Extinction Method.”
Judging from the décor and the noise levels, Claire and Luke have the more enviable life, with an apartment that serves as a shrine to urbanity. (Those throw pillows!) Meanwhile, Annie and Nate wallow in a morass of spilled food and plastic toys, to say nothing of the baby shrieking in the next room.
But Goldfarb is a father himself, and in this play about adulthood and childishness, his preference for Annie and Nate is clear. He gilds their frayed nerves and stained clothes with warmth and humor, while unwilling to write the juvenile Claire and Luke with any empathy. Annie and Nate’s dialogue feels authentic, lived-in; Claire and Luke’s is unconscionably stagey. This partly owes to character—Claire is, after all, an actress—but that doesn’t excuse all the awkward lines. Take Claire’s description of her relationship: “We’ve eaten some great meals, seen some powerful theater, taken some stimulating educational walks.”
Cradle and All might have proven more powerful and stimulating had Goldfarb mustered the same compassion for Claire and Luke as he displays for their neighbors. Instead, you’re left wondering why he didn’t merely extend the second act into a full-length on its own, particularly as the two halves (set design aside) don’t offer much in the way of meaningful contrast. It seems as if Goldfarb the playwright has done what a father should never do: He’s picked favorites.