Theatre En Bloc hits the Sweet Spot in a Comedy About Motherhood with Dark Edges

REVIEW: Theatre en Bloc’s regional premiere of Molly Smith Metzler’s "Cry It Out"

Theatre En Bloc's production of Molly Smith Metzler's "Cry It Out." Photo by Errich Peterson.

Theatre en Bloc’s regional premiere of Molly Smith Metzler’s “Cry It Out” is not the “feel-good,” “Isn’t-Motherhood-Sweet” play you might think you should go see with your mom this Mother’s Day weekend. It is, however, probably the play about mothers actually she wants to see.

Set in her Long Island backyard, conversation-starved Manhattan attorney Jessie takes a necessary risk by asking the woman in the neighboring duplex – Lina, also a new mother – to coffee. Of course, they are confined to the “sweet spot” in the yard where their respective baby monitors will reach, but that does not stop them from striking up a powerful friendship. Despite vastly different financial situations, they bond over breastfeeding, the feelings of isolation, overbearing in-laws, and the sanctity of a trip to the neighborhood Stop and Save. All’s well until they learn that another couple adapting to parenthood have been watching their daily coffee chats from the mansion on a nearby cliffside.      

Molly Smith Metzler wrote the uproariously funny (and bitterly relatable) play on a commission from Actors’ Theatre of Louisville after the success of her “Elemeno Pea” in 2011. When “Cry It Out” premiered at ACT’s Humana Festival in 2017, Smith Metzler’s keen character craft made it a crowd favorite.

“Cry It Out” continues through May 20
Zach’s Whisenhunt Stage
theatreenbloc.com

Here in Austin, Lily Wolff’s direction rings with wit and emotional intellect, finding a full spectrum of truth in each character of this female-centric cast. It’s the grip of honesty that keeps Jessie (Jenny Lavery) and Lina (Lee Eddy) returning to their “sweet spot” with a gravity-like pull. Lina’s brash, South Shore personality runs hilariously roughshod over hospitable but slightly awkward Jessie, a woman who doesn’t “curse in real life.” Both stand in stark contrast with their posh, cliffside neighbors, played unsettlingly by Christin Sawyer Davis and J. Ben Wolfe.

They become each other’s sounding board for the travails of motherhood, knocking around at many familiar debates in parenting circles — whether to return to work, daycare, partners’ roles, the accumulation of stuff, and sleep training. By no means are these new conversations, but they do bear the markings of contemporary America and our difficulties with what to do with women when they become mothers. Tying the themes of play back into the Austin community, Wolff chose to weave audio interviews with parents into scene transitions. The effect was one of expansion: the personal decisions of new parents in an unremarkable corner of Long Island suddenly echo in local voices, repeated and refracted.

The Zach’s Whisenhunt Stage, an intimate in-the-round space, suits “Cry It Out” well, and scenic artist Leslie Turner’s work subtly suggests a grassy backyard in perfect seclusion. Seated on a child’s playset, the women drink their coffee in a private summit, but 360-degree seating — always a reminder of the intrinsic voyeurism of the theater — turns the audience into watchful neighbors ourselves. We join in the economy of spectatorship, perhaps nursing our own concerns about how we are raising our kids or just longing to drink coffee with friends. The arrangement and Rachel Atkinson’s lighting design cohere entirely when we can see our fellow theatergoers holding their own napping infants, pinching their companions as if to say “That’s you!” or squirming at the thought of childrearing.

Late in the play, Jessie blurts, “None of this is real!” And for a half second I wonder if the whole play had been a delusion we have followed her through for an hour and a half. Perhaps she had lost a baby, and this was the brain coping.

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But that’s my own ignorance showing. Of course, it’s not a fantasy.

We have plenty of plays about “mad women,” and not nearly enough about what it’s like raising a baby in America. What isn’t “real” for Jessie are the months of maternity leave, the departure from her professional life and pre-baby relationships. It’s a desperate time, an exhausting time, and a time for meeting other women in that sweet spot where baby monitors’ radii overlap.           

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