Parenthood’s haves and have-nots meet in a Brooklyn hallway

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Greg Keller and Maria Dizzia. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)
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Thinking about having kids? Daniel Goldfarb’s off-Broadway play Cradle And All seems to suggest its a pretty useless exercise: whether you decide yes or no, you're in trouble.

In Act I, Claire and Luke appear to be living a charmed life in their well-appointed Brooklyn Heights apartment. They’ve got money, they’ve got taste. But it quickly becomes obvious that their lives are as empty as their (also empty) refrigerator. Claire, facing her 40th birthday and afraid of being seen as a cougar clinging to her younger partner, has decided she wants a child, even though she’s always professed otherwise. Luke doesn’t want to be a father—not yet, not with her, maybe not ever—and their once-cozy life hangs in the balance.

In Act II, the action shifts across the hall, to a couple struggling with a screaming infant. Annie and Nate have some of the same problems as Claire and Luke—a rotten sex life, trouble finding work, personal jealousies and rivalries—but they don’t have time to talk about them; their maniacal baby won’t give them a moment’s peace. Disagreements over how to deal with the screaming (Annie tries “the extinction method,” letting the baby cry for hours alone in a dark bedroom) stir up unspoken conflicts in their marriage.

Structuring the play as two acts taking place simultaneously on the same evening in the same building, Goldfarb has created a series of parallels—bits of narrative and personal detail—so the acts mirror each other in lots of ways. (Neil Patel’s gorgeous set does the same thing, as the apartment in the second act is a mirror image of the apartment in the first act, although it’s cluttered with baby toys and crummier furniture.) And the biggest parallel of all is in the casting: Both couples are played by the same actors, Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller.

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Dizzia’s roles have more contrast, from the stunning but fragile Claire (a former movie star in high heels and designer blouses) to the disheveled but determined Annie (a bleary-eyed couch potato with ratty hair and dirty sweatpants). Keller’s roles, as nerdy and aloof Luke and wise-cracking and randy Nate, have more warmth and humor. Under Sam Buntrock’s direction, both actors are sharp and utterly believable in their portrayals—as individuals and as couples.

Goldfarb tilts his emotional scale in favor of the couple with the baby: Their lives do seem full—full of dirty diapers and noise and frustration, but also full of focus and meaning. Claire and Luke across the hall, by contrast, have neater but less interesting lives. In truth, it’s unfair to compare the couples’ home lives, since Annie and Nate rarely leave their apartment, while Claire and Luke have their most exciting times elsewhere, in restaurants or parks or theaters or on vacations; of course the ones with the baby have a richer home life—it’s the only place their lives happen.

Still, Goldfarb makes his point with at least a modicum of even-handedness: Relationships are rife with conflict whether there’s a baby or not. If you look at the people across the hall with envy, they’re probably doing the same to you.

Cradle and All is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club – Stage 1, at 131 W. 55th Street. Tickets are $80. Call 212-581-1212.