'Cradle and All'

Daniel Goldfarb lines up some promising characters, but play is marred thanks to self-indulgences in the script and directorial mis-readings.

Daniel Goldfarb lines up some promising characters for “Cradle and All” — a cranky baby named Olivia and the two couples she’s driving crazy with her incessant crying. Scribe also knows what he wants to say — that a baby in the house changes everyone’s lives, including those of the neighbors in the next apartment. But between self-indulgences in the script and directorial mis-readings of the huge character transformations brought on by the existence of a baby, the play is as maddening as anything that Olivia can dish out.

The two couples who live across the hall from one another in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone don’t interact directly, which is why each act has its own title and separate design elements.

For the mini-drama dubbed “Infantry,” ubiquitous designers Neil Patel (set), Ken Billington (lighting), and Jill BC DuBoff (sound) have created a chillingly stylish living space with putty-colored furnishings, “important” lighting treatments, and severely geometric accent pieces to reflect the sophisticated tastes of the couple who cohabit in one of the flats in this handsome brownstone. Sleekly dressed in Mattie Ullrich’s understated designer rags, Claire DesRosier (Maria Dizzia), and Luke Sean Joy (Greg Keller) fit the image of what a former screen beauty and a dealer in high-end antiques might look like if they had no kids, no cares, and the financial freedom to pursue what they define as “a cosmopolitan life.”

Their conflicting responses to the leather-lunged screams coming from the apartment across the way give us a pretty good idea of the nature of their five-year relationship and where it’s headed.

“Brooklyn Heights is becoming the Upper West Side before our very eyes,” sneers Luke, who can barely restrain himself from ordering his neighbors to “control” their squalling child. If it were up to him, Luke would just as soon throttle Olivia in her crib. (You almost feel sorry for the personable Keller, forced to play this cold fish just to get at the perfect part waiting for him in the second act.)

Olivia’s wails have the opposite reaction on Claire, who at 40 is tired of being Luke’s trophy acquisition and is desperate for a child and a more meaningful relationship. Dizzia does a delicate piece of work on Claire, who is intelligent enough to know that Luke is too narcissistic to make the leap to maturity she asks of him, but brave enough to make the effort anyway. Her failure is sharp and poignant — and to scribe’s credit, it is dramatically engineered with brisk, devastating efficiency.

But it takes Goldfarb three times as long to lead his second couple to a similar moment of truth in “The Extinction Method.”

Across the hall from Clare and Luke, Olivia’s sleep-deprived parents, Annie Saxe (Dizzia) and Nate Hamburger (Keller), are padding around in ratty pajamas and living in babycentric squalor. Having paid a therapist $300 to talk them through a tough-love exercise to get the baby to “go down” quietly and sleep through the night, they wage an incessant battle to see who will crack first and overturn the therapeutic rules.

Driven by the single-track trajectory of the couple’s conflict, Dizzia pursues Annie’s anxieties to the edge of hysteria, while Keller finds his comfort zone by concentrating on Nate’s endearing tendency to bake cookies when he’s stressed out. But maintaining audience sympathy for annoying characters is not a fair-play acting job.

The repetitive nature of Annie and Jake’s bickering is a clear indication of Goldfarb’s reluctance to address the deeper marital discord underlying their conflicts over parenting issues. And helmer Sam Buntrock’s insistence on pushing for laughs trivializes the moment of insight when these immature adults finally realize that Olivia is not the only baby who feels like crying.

Cradle and All

Manhattan Theater Club, City Center; 299 seats; $80 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts by Daniel Goldfarb. Directed by Sam Buntrock.

Creative

Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; production stage manager, Hannah Cohen. Reviewed May 20, 2011. Opened May 25. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Claire DesRosier, Annie Saxe - Maria Dizzia
Luke Sean Joy, Nate Hamburger - Greg Keller

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