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June 1, 2011 6:14 pm

Cradle and All, Manhattan Theatre Club, NY

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Cradle and All Manhattan Theatre Club
 Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller

Cradle and All, Daniel Goldfarb’s world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, has something rare in the annals of recent American play writing: a fully engaging second act. Or should I say second half: the fact that each section carries a title – Infantry and The Extinction Method – suggests that Goldfarb knows his comedy-drama is less a coherent full-length play than a pair of one-acts.

These playlets, directed unerringly by Sam Buntrock, take place in adjacent apartments in Brooklyn Heights, New York. How each section’s thirtysomething couple – the first features an antiques dealer and an out-of-work actor, the second a stay-at-home mother and an out-of-work actor – can afford to live in one of New York’s most expensive neighbourhoods remains a mystery.

The acts’ only narrative overlap involves an egg. Nate Hamburger, the actor in the second flat, begins baking cookies one evening to distract his wife, Annie, from the crying of their 11-month-old daughter, Olivia. The toddler’s lung power is Wagnerian but the adults, under the guidance of an online psychologist, have decided to let her wail.

Nate fetches the crucial ingredient from the other couple, Claire and Luke. They are agonising about whether to conceive a child, so an egg is not just an egg. That the childless couple are the generous party in the transaction is another reversal from the norm in domestic American dramaturgy, in which the couple with kids is normally the beneficent one.

Goldfarb’s artistic bounty is lavished on Nate and Annie. Their story has the firm premise – the difficult desire to avoid coddling their daughter – from which incident can arise. And their home, the usual obstacle course of a couple with young offspring, contains the props from which laughs can erupt.

If the result often resembles a 1990s TV sitcom such as Mad About You, the humour is earned. The lovely, mercurial Maria Dizzia and the droll, neurotic Greg Keller, who play both couples, are able in The Extinction Method to show many more colours than in Infantry.

In Infantry, Claire and Luke are less a flesh-and-blood couple than an unconvincing idea of one. Emotional doubts abound. Nate and Annie also question their relationship – neither couple has had full-on sex for months – but the shared messiness of family life sees them through. 

 

Manhattan Theatre Club

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