Magic Time!: ‘Cry It Out’ at Studio Theatre

A comedy literally written with mother wit.

Cry It Out—an exhilaratingly funny and touching comedy about new parenthood—is a joyous reminder that when a playwright of Molly Smith Metzler’s skill and compassion writes “close to home,” as she puts it—drawing from her own life—the work on stage can draw us in and connect us as if it is our story too. This identity alchemy is all the more wondrous in Cry It Out because the story it tells is grounded in the specific postnatal experience of three new mothers—and Metzler wrote it from notes she took during the first two years of her daughter’s life.

This is, then, a play no man could have written because no man could have known its postpartum particulars. Curiously, this subject matter is also relatively rare in the annals of plays by women who are moms. To the extent today’s theater deals with birth and baby-care topics (which is not much), it is generally not from the vantage point of those whose days are measured in soiled diapers, whose sleep is scheduled between breastfeedings, and whose clothes are accessorized with spitup and snot.

Dina Thomas (Lina) and Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) in ‘Cry It Out.’ Photo by Daniel Corey.

Raising infants and birthing plays at the same time is no walk in the park. Yet the paucity of dramatic literature that foregrounds new motherhood might also be explained by a cultural headwind of a more invidious sort: the professional theater presumption that marketing new plays by women is hard enough. Why compound the problem by producing plays that would interest only theatergoers who would have to hire babysitters? And why mount content that non-moms would not relate to?

All of which makes Studio’s choice to program Cry It Out quite a remarkable surprise. There are plenty of laugh lines; this is a gut-bustingly funny comedy after all. But it is literally written with mother wit. Metzger’s script can refer to babies as larval and breasts as boobs and get away with it, because her jokes consistently arise situationally from specifics she knows from inside. What’s amazing is how this insider angle of vision becomes a singularly satisfying experience for those who are outside it.

Watching and enjoying Cry It Out is keenly connecting—not least because the direction (by Joanie Schultz) and the four actors in this production are stellar. But the play itself is really the thing that transfixes and affixes us. Even as the biological basics of maternity—pregnancy, gestation, lactation—are vividly evoked throughout the script, Cry It Out welcomes us into its world with a humor, warmth, and emotional inclusiveness that transcend our various anatomies by reminding us primally of our very commonplace commonality: We each were born to a mother and she had to make really hard choices about how to take care of us and get us grown. Our mothers’ choices were different, their resources and support systems were different, their obstacles and opportunities were different. But their choices to keep and safeguard us cost them more than we can know.

Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) and Dina Thomas (Lina) in ‘Cry It Out.’ Photo by Daniel Corey.

I love how disarmingly Metzler has crafted her narrative to bring home to us this connection. We first meet two young moms who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds but who are in similar emotional straits: a postpartum loneliness and isolation that yield, once they meet, to neighborly camaraderie and friendship.

Upper-middle-class and personable Jessie (Emjoy Gavino) is an attorney in a firm where she’s on track to make partner. She has really bonded with her baby, though, and is thinking of scuttling her career to be a stay-at-home mom. The problem is that this would infuriate her financial-sector husband, whose plan for their future depends on having dual incomes.

Working-class, brash, and wise-cracking Lina (Dina Thomas) is on a paltry maternity leave from her entry-level hospital job and must return to work because her partner the baby daddy makes almost no money, though he does do admirable good in a social service agency. The problem is that Lina’s mother-in-law, in whose care the infant would have to be left, cannot be trusted because she’s a lush.

The third mother we meet is from the upper crust: wrapped-tight, overwrought Adrienne (Tessa Klein), who shares none of Jessie’s and Lina’s joys of motherhood. Adrienne has not bonded with her baby and feels mostly rage because the birth of the child has imperiled her high-end career as a jewelry designer. Her equally high-earning husband owns a successful company, so they could easily afford for Adrienne to take off work to raise their kid. The problem is that Adrienne is adamant she does not want to.

Paolo Andino (Mitchell) and Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) in ‘Cry It Out.’ Photo by Daniel Corey.

In an intriguing twist, Metzger introduces Mitchell, Adrienne’s wealthy and well-meaning husband (Paolo Andino), who drops in on Jessie and Lina’s backyard palaver to ask if his wife could join them. Adrienne needs the sort of sisterly support they appear to have for each other, he explains. Mitchell is a fascinating character in that he evidences all the emotional warmth and concern of a loving new mom, while Adrienne evidences all the postnatal chilliness of a typical distant and resentful new dad. Besides bringing rich layers of comic complication, fraught drama, and class analysis to the play, Metzger’s stereotype-smashing Mitchell-Adrienne storyline functions as a shrewd rebuttal to the notion that biology is destiny.

The play’s title refers to a theory of sleep training that holds that babies put to bed should be left alone to “cry it out.” Once they realize in the darkness no one will come, they will quit crying and comfort themselves to sleep. At one point Jessie asks Lina if she has ever considered trying the technique. “No,” says Lina, “because I don’t hate babies.” The title also refers metaphorically to the dilemma of isolated first-time moms who know not what to do and are left to flounder it out on their own.

In an even deeper sense, the title Cry It Out refers to the origin story the play connects us to: All of us came out our mother’s womb into this world bawling like babies in need of everything beginning with mama. Whenever we harbor animus based on difference, that is the fundamental affinity we have forgotten, our shared mammalian humanity. That’s the universalizing gist that cries out of Cry It Out. And that’s essentially why Studio’s production is such a must-see, must-feel theater experience.

 [Read Amy Kotkin’s review of Cry It Out.]

Running Time:  One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

Cry It Out plays through December 16, 2018, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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